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America’s Cup: Beware the Cyclors

On the second day of Round Robin racing, it's Emirates Team New Zealand looking ever stronger.

May 29, 2017
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America’s Cup: Beware the Cyclors Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

Before we get to today’s racing, let’s start off where we left off last night: the extensive damage—and the extensive repair—to Land Rover BAR. The afterhours boatbuilding squad on Land Rover BAR’s shore team pulled off a miracle. After carving out a roughly 15-foot section of the port hull’s underbelly and strafing on a new piece of structure, surgery was complete by morning and the boat measured in for racing. Even Land Rover BAR’s grinder Jono Macbeth appeared candidly stunned with what he saw when he showed up for work this morning. Although, I doubt he ever lost faith in the team’s carbon craftsmen.

Show up for racing they did, although Land Rover BAR missed the morning’s allotted practice window. While other teams checked in on the racecourse and validated their overnight modifications, the Brits regrouped with anticipation of their two tough matches to come: Oracle Team USA in the second race of the day and Emirates Team New Zealand toward the end.

The hard-luck Brits sat and watched as Artemis Racing Team and Groupama Team France squared off in the opening race of the day in 11 knots. The breeze was a few clicks down from Saturday’s 15 so it was a different day and a chance to see a few different looks from the teams in terms of foil selection and moding. Artemis Racing helmsman Nathan Outteridge alluded to “configuration changes,” of his own, most likely with foil choice.

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America's Cup
Groupama Team France stunned Artemis Racing Team with a comeback win on the second day of racing at the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Qualifiers. Skipper Frank Cammas said the lighter conditions suited his team. Artemis skipper Nathan Outteridge said a few missed shifts cost them the win. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

Artemis played soft with the French in its prestart, keeping space between them and allowing Groupama Team France to set up low and run away at the start. In hot pursuit, with only 2 seconds between them, Artemis jibed first after Mark 1 and sprung one on the French, sailing past with better pressure and angle.

This one was going as expected, with Artemis banking a 16-second lead at the bottom gate. One cross later on the beat, Artemis was still in control but sailed itself into a windless hole along the left boundary. Groupama, looking slightly more in control of their boat in the day’s lighter conditions, turned the tables and suddenly found themselves with nearly a 300-meter lead.

Game over? Not quite.

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Over the next several legs, Artemis chipped away at Groupama’s lead, and at the final turning mark there was only 4 seconds between them. Artemis gave chase on the reach, inching ever closer, but the runway was too short. Skipper Frank Cammas scored his win and had plenty of reason to celebrate. That would be the end of their losing streak, and the end of their one-race day.

It was a race Artemis should have won given their commanding lead, but the result provided a stark example of the trickiness of this near-shore Bermuda Sound race course. There are streaks, shifts, massive holes, and plenty of passing lanes. The races that followed would prove as much.

Let’s start with the ensuing match, Race No. 8 of the Louis Vuitton Qualifiers, between Land Rover BAR and Oracle Team USA. Only a fool would’ve bet against the Americans in this one. Pushing deeper and deeper toward the pin end of the starting box, Mr. Spithill tried twice to hook the skittish British helmsman, and twice failed. The second attempt was one too many as the wind shifted left. Oracle, now unable to lay the start, was forced tack away while Land Rover BAR pinched past the pin, bore off and got a much-needed head start.

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Oracle wasn’t far behind, however, and squashed BAR’s 9-second Mark 1 delta with a flawless jibe, coming out a good 3 knots faster. Oracle tactician Tom Slingsby called a textbook split at the leeward gate and they controlled the race soon after. With an easy cross halfway up the beat, Oracle led Land Rover through Gate 3 by 9 seconds and foiled off to the left (looking downwind). Ainslie took the opposite gate, but on the bear away lost control of the boat. Rita’s bows plunged into the turquoise sound, and in a blink, the delta jumped from 50 to 400 meters. With cockpits now full of water, there was no way they were getting back into this race and Mr. Spithill and Mr. Slingsby kept piling on the pain.

America's Cup
In a game of inches, every time the hull touches the water, it’s inches lost. SoftBank learned the hard way today against Emirates Team New Zealand. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

It wasn’t a boat issue that cost them the race Ainslie opined at the day’s press conference, but rather boathandling mistakes that dogged them throughout the day. “We had the lead in both races, but made a few errors in particular, which we can go away and learn from,” said. “We have to keep improving.”

Yes, yes they do.

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For ardent Team New Zealand fans still holding a grudge with SoftBank Team Japan’s Dean Barker for coughing up AC34, Race 3 of the day was a long time coming. While Emirates Team New Zealand was the most flawless on the water, this was Peter Burling’s opportunity show Mr. Barker who’s boss.

SoftBank got a jump off the start, but they were hand-to-hand down the first run. SoftBank tactician Chris Draper called early for a split at the gate, and from the right-side boundary (looking upwind), SoftBank was firmly in control of this match. They continued to stretch their lead, but tack by tack, again, the New Zealanders were masterful every time they turned their boat, and at the top of leg 5, a big shift turned the race inside out. Once ahead, Emirates Team New Zealand’s boathandling was nothing short of exceptional.

America's Cup
Oracle Team USA, which sailed three races on the day, was plenty strong, but in their loss against Artemis they showed they were vulnerable when behind. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

At this point, even so early in the series, Team New Zealand “cyclors” are the envy of AC35. Said Burling after racing: “The boys are able to put out a serious amount of power.” That, and “there’s still plenty left in the tank.”

What exactly that means no one is sure, but if I were one of the few struggling teams, I’d be nervous…very nervous.

Given Artemis’ lunchtime upset, its next match of the day against undefeated Oracle Team USA was a big one to get them back on track, and in this one Nathan Outteridge and his teammates schooled Jimmy Spithill and 17 from start to finish. Once Oracle got slow in the pre-start, Artemis had all the room they needed to jump ahead and only occasionally look back.

Whereas they’d earlier coughed up their race to the French by sailing into a few holes, this time they had their head out of the boat. “Match racing is about trying to control the other boat when you’re ahead,” said Outteridge. “There were plenty of moments where we decided not to cover them in search of better pressure because all it takes is you tack on top of them and you end up going where they were going and they tack and go the other way so we were just balancing the risk between managing the other boat and finding the better pressure.”

A lot of that was getting tactician Ian Percy off the handles a little more often and have a look around. “When you’re grinding pretty flat out it’s pretty hard to see that stuff,” added Outteridge. “Our front three guys put in super hard to allow him to do that and it made a big difference.”

America's Cup
Controlling the race early on, Land Rover BAR relinquished its lead to Oracle Team USA and never recovered. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

And what a difference the upset made for everyone else. To finally have someone knock the defender off its win streak had to count for something. There’s not a whole lot to read into Oracle’s first loss, in the grand scheme of things. It’s only one race of many to come, but this month-long regatta in Bermuda is a game of confidence, improvement, and ability, and anyone who takes out Oracle on any given day can consider themselves firmly in the game.

Emirates Team New Zealand versus Land Rover BAR for Race 11. Was there really any question about the outcome? Not likely. I slapped a U.S. dollar on the table in the media center and wagered my neighbor and esteemed British journalist Bob Fisher, confident I’d come away richer. He pulled out a Bermuda 2-dollar bill, perhaps knowing full well he wouldn’t see it again.

When Emirates Team New Zealand got pegged with an OCS penalty, there was a twinkle of hope in Fisher’s eye, but as Emirates soared right over the top of the Brits halfway down Leg 2, he winced. Land Rover BAR had nothing to counter Burling’s low-fast mode. Ainslie kept it close thereafter, but coughed up all their hard grinding with catastrophic bearaway from Gate 3, the boat spinning out of control and screeching to a halt in boil of whitewash.

America's Cup
The cyclors of Emirates Team New Zealand are proving potent, even the light winds. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

The finish delta was a humiliating 1 minute and 28 seconds. The biggest of the series thus far. As others struggle for consistency, Emirates Team New Zealand only grows more powerful.

For Oracle Team USA and SoftBank Team Japan, the final race of the day was no different than the dozens of practice races and lineups they’ve engaged on over the past months as partners, but this time, they had a crowd looking on. With similar boats and SoftBank looking for a win to end the day, it could have been a scrappy fight, but instead, it promptly turned to a match-race clinic, with Mr. Spithill sticking it to Mr. Barker every step of the way, putting hurt upon hurt and pushing them out of phase on every leg. Oracle left them in the dust around Gate 3 and virtually sailed the racecourse unchallenged. The final delta? A measly 54 seconds, which prove the point of the day: the racecourse is a minefield and no lead is guaranteed.

It could’ve been worse for SoftBank. A lot worse. But their loss to the defender was perhaps the least of Mr. Barker’s concerns at the end of the day, as well as for everyone else. The fear factor is with Emirates Team New Zealand because they’re frighteningly good.

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