Amazing Finish Caps Amazing Cup

The final race of the 32nd America's Cup had everything-- tacking duels, a downwind close-quarters pass, an upwind lead change, and a photo finish. "First Beat" from our July 3, 2007, /AC eNewsletter/

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Acm 2007/photo:stefano Gattini

VALENCIA, Spain-With a finish that was as unbelievable as it was close, Alinghi won the 32nd America's Cup 5-2 by taking Race 7 by a 1-second margin. The race started in a 14- to 16-knot seabreeze and ended in a light northwesterly, both boats crawling across the finish line with their genoas sheeted in tight and the tension ratcheted up to heretofore-unknown levels. In between, Race 7 featured just about everything required for a top-notch America's Cup race, one that kept spectators on the edge of their seats from start to finish. There were tacking duels, a downwind close-quarters pass, an upwind lead change, a dial-down at the windward mark, a penalty, and speed tests both upwind and downwind. It was, in short, the perfect way to end a remarkable America's Cup.Though he's now won the America's Cup for the second time, Alinghi president Ernesto Bertarelli was quick to say that this victory, this campaign, was the more satisfying of the two. "For me, it's been a lesson in life and one of the hardest things I've ever done," said Bertarelli, "and today is, beside the birth of my children, the best day of my life."Where to start with this race? It's hard to know; it was such a strange and mesmerizing package. But certainly the last five minutes were stunning in many respects, and the race was, for the most part, decided there. Halfway down the final run, the race seemed to be over, the Cup won. Alinghi had a lead of over 100 meters and a penalty in hand. The lead was so great that tactician Brad Butterworth decided to sail past the starboard-jibe layline and set up in an extremely powerful position. It was a defensive maneuver, with just a moderately tight spinnaker reach standing between Alinghi and the 32nd America's Cup. Emirates Team New Zealand was more toward the center of the course, doing whatever it could to steal Alinghi's wind and close the gap. All of a sudden the ETNZ bow crew leapt into action, bringing a genoa on deck. Were they readying for a peel? Actually they were pulling a jib on deck. They had spied a significant change in the breeze, which had been getting lighter for most of the run, and then suddenly backed from the southeast to the northeast (the final breeze reading was 6 knots at 340 degrees)."The run just turned into a little bit of a minefield," said Butterworth. "I was a little bit in denial going down the run that the breeze wasn't going to hold. Warwick Fleury did a good job of coaching us to get the jib on deck and get things going and in the end the penalty was worth it."With Team New Zealand now under jib and sailing toward the finish, the Swiss team scrambled to take down the chute by hand and raise a headsail. Alinghi's problems were compounded because the inboard end of the pole had exploded when sheeting the sail to a tight reach, and left the spinnaker flying to leeward with the takedown line well out of reach, because Team New Zealand simply had to do a tack and bear away past 90 degrees true wind angle to shed the penalty, and because it didn't look as if Alinghi could lay the finish line.At the last possible moment, Alinghi got both some pressure and a lift and was just able to lay the finish. Team New Zealand put in a tack, then tacked back and put the bow way down to shed the penalty. But Barker couldn't get his bow across the line before Alinghi. The blue flag came up, the Alinghi sailors started hugging each other, and Emirates Team New Zealand was left to rue the decisions and miscues that could've changed the fate of this classic, and so very close, contest.In some respects it's almost disappointing that the race had such a nontraditional end. For three legs, it was everything an America's Cup race could hope to be, and in spectacular conditions. For the second time in this Cup, Dean Barker elected to eschew the dial up and instead set up on Alinghi's stern. Ed Baird, helmsman for Alinghi, fell off on port tack, but spent most of then next three minutes trying to shake Barker, who planted NZL-92 firmly on the tail of SUI-100. Barker retained control right through the gun, though Baird did even things out quite a bit. The start saw NZL-92 in a strong position to leeward, with Alinghi to windward. It was a testament to Baird's skill that Alinghi could live there as long as they did, waiting nearly 6 minutes before tacking. "I think the start was a difficult one for us," said Butterworth. "They did a good job to get the action over to the right-hand side, and we ended up starting reasonably stronger than I thought we could and be able to hold there for a while, which is a reflection of how good a job a job Rolf [Vrolijk] and Grant [Simmer] and those guys did with the boat to be able to sail in such close proximity to the team."Emirates Team New Zealand had control of the advantage line for much of the rest of the leg. However, the team was never quite able to convert what was at times a 40-meter lead into a cross, and in the end it was Alinghi that rounded first after forcing ETNZ out past the port-tack layline and twice luffing the team head to wind. But the delta was just 7 seconds, barely more than a boatlength, bow to bow.On the run Emirates Team New Zealand tactician Terry Hutchinson was sublime and Alinghi was, to put it bluntly, mediocre. The team struggled with its spinnaker work and was eventually forced to set up on a very long starboard jibe with ETNZ behind and to windward, a powerful position. ETNZ converted this position into the lead in the race, rolling over Alinghi to windward and then soaking down in front of them. "Downwind we had a little trouble jibing," said Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth. "We did a nice job out of the top mark and got a little bit further ahead then jibed on what we thought was a nice opportunity and couldn't quite convert it. Then it was difficult, we had to cross them, which was not our intention, on port and set up on the long jibe, which was difficult, and Team New Zealand did a great job of pushing down."At the leeward gate, Hutchinson had a choice that's bedeviled him this regatta, whether to sail straight into the left-side gate or jibe and take the right-side gate. He went with the easier, faster maneuver, allowing Alinghi to grab the starboard advantage.Of course, that only works if you're close enough to prevent the other boat from crossing safely. Initially, it appeared that ETNZ had enough of a lead to cross, but Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth once again picked the exact right moment to attack and after an aggressive tacking duel, Butterworth was once again able to force ETNZ to head for the port-tack layline. ETNZ still had the lead at this point, but it wasn't big enough to allow the team to tack and cross. So ETNZ sailed a bit past the port-tack layline and tacked, initiating a dial down. Alinghi bore off and headed right for ETNZ, who didn't, in the view of the umpires, do enough to avoid a collision. ETNZ picked up a penalty, and also lost the lead, as Alinghi rounded first by 12 seconds.Hutchinson, who twice picked the left-side gate when ahead and lost both times, said that decision is the one that will keep him up at night. "The most obvious [decision] is going around the right-hand gate, looking downwind," he said. "If I had to do it all over again…twice now we were burned by that...And obviously the top mark scenario, we'll play through that one again and look at that on the replay and see what we can learn from that. All in all, when you lose a race by a second after getting rid of your penalty, you're pretty hard pressed to fault a lot of what you did. The run seemed to be a formality, with Alinghi in the lead and a penalty in hard. But this Cup has been full of surprises, so I guess we should've expected one more.