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Alinghi To Challenge for America’s Cup

January 19, 2003
Stuart Streuli

A land-locked country will, for the first time, challenge for the America’s Cup. Another sparkling performance by Russell Coutts and his Alinghi crew, including syndicate chief Ernesto Bertarelli, saw them gain a critical advantage with an Oracle/BMW Racing penalty in the pre-start, come back from a 30-second deficit on the second beat, and then fend off a furious, last-gasp effort from Larry Elllison’s syndicate just boatlengths from the finish. The history books will record this win as coming by a 2:34 margin, and capping off a 5-1 series victory, but those who followed the action know this Louis Vuitton Final was much closer than that. “The 5 to 1 score doesn’t really reflect how tough the racing was,” said Coutts. “We were behind many, many times.”

The light 9-knot northerly, which persisted throughout the afternoon, seemed to favor Oracle when the AP dropped just before 3 p.m.–the American boat has been fast in those conditions in this series. But Alinghi gained a huge advantage before the starting gun as Coutts induced Oracle helmsman Peter Holmberg into picking up a penalty on a port-starboard situation with 2:34 left in the starting sequence. Hoping to take advantage of a pin-favored line, Holmberg faked low and then hardened up, trying to sneak across Alinghi’s bow. Coutts didn’t fall for the fake and headed Oracle off above the line. The American syndicate fell off on starboard, circled counter clockwise, and headed dead downwind with Alinghi straight on its tail. Holmberg tried to jibe to port and hold his course, with the main trimmed to centerline so it wouldn’t hit Alinghi’s jib–the boats were less than five feet apart. He pushed too close to Alinghi and, for the second time in this series, Oracle was on the wrong side of the judges’ call. Unlike the previous one, however, there was no reason for Oracle to gripe about this call.

Pre-start opinions from both boats’ tacticians seemed to indicate the left was the place to be. Oracle was able to recover from the foul and win the pin, forcing Alinghi off on port. Alinghi had the initial advantage, according to Virtual Spectator, but Oracle quickly took over the lead, tacked to consolidate, and won the first cross. The lead stretched to over 100 meters, nearly five boatlengths, at one time, but Alinghi was able to halve the gap before the windward mark. The first delta was 15 seconds. The lead almost doubled, to 28 seconds, on the first downwind leg, as Oracle again showed its ability to sail faster than the Swiss challenger downwind. “Halfway around the course,” said Coutts, “I figured we were going to lose.”

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For the first half of the second beat, Oracle benefited from the lessons it learned in the loss in Race 5, tacking when it looked optimal according to the wind, rather than when it could best blanket Alinghi. Passing the mid-course weather boat, Oracle needed just a boatlength or two to be able to scrub off their penalty–a 270-degree turn in America’s Cup racing–and still hold the lead. “The breeze is really solid between us and the mark,” said Oracle aerial tactician Cameron Dunn at the time, “and to the right.” Dunn also mentioned a band of breeze off to the left, but he was unsure whether the team would be able to benefit from that pressure.

Oracle went for the left-hand pressure, which was a bit of a gamble as they let Alinghi cross behind them on starboard and take the right side of the course. This might have been the decision that cost them the Louis Vuitton Cup. Alinghi had better pressure on the right, and then when both boats tacked back and started closing, a right shift moved in. Oracle’s lead quickly evaporated. Holmberg was forced to leebow on the first cross and then take Alinghi’s stern the second time the boats came together. At the second windward mark the lead was 10 seconds, to Alinghi.

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| Stuart Streuli|

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| The obligatory champagne shower for the members of Alinghi, the 2003 Louis Vuitton Cup champions.* * *|

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Now in front, Alinghi suddenly looked like the faster boat. Coutts extended his advantage to 24 seconds at the second leeward mark and, covering loosely on the third beat, added four seconds to that by the time the two boats started downwind for the finish. Oracle’s chances looked bleak as the run started. But Oracle skipper Chris Dickson and Holmberg were able to gain a key bit of separation and close the margin as the boats converged with just a few minutes of sailing left to the finish. Alinghi tried to jibe to leeward and defend, but Oracle, sailing with nothing to lose, was able to roll over Coutts and get ahead. Dickson and Holmberg now had what they wanted, a chance to force Alinghi into picking up a penalty, or slow Coutts down enough to be able to do the penalty turn and still maintain the lead. But Coutts never blinked, holding off Oracle’s stern until he saw a chance to make a break. He jibed onto starboard and accelerated toward the finish. Oracle tried in vain to luff, but could never get enough of an overlap. After Alinghi took the gun, Holmberg and Dickson took their time completing the penalty circle, accounting for the 2:34 time differential.

Coutts, and syndicate head Ernesto Bertarelli, were gracious accepting the victory. In fact, the biggest smile to crease Coutts’ face came when Larry Ellison announced that he would “absolutely” be back for the next Louis Vuitton Cup.

Race Statistics, Race VI
Breeze: 9-knots from 005. Slight shifts all day.
Alinghi approached from starboard, Oracle approached from port
Course Deltas
Even start
1st mark: Oracle by 15 seconds
2nd mark: Oracle by 28 seconds
3rd mark: Alinghi by 10 seconds
4th mark: Alinghi by 24 seconds
5th mark: Alinghi by 24 seconds
Finish: Alinghi by 2:34

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