Much of the chatter heard round the virtual water cooler on the morning following the Prada Cup’s final round-robin races was less about the undefeated run of INEOS Team UK and its advance to the Finals. It was all about the excitement of a legitimately close sailboat race. Finally, a race that captivated everyone, grumpy curmudgeons and all. It was good, from start to finish. Nine lead changes, with a bit of match racing in between, and a 50-plus-knot boatspeed feather added to the cap of the British challenger, a team that was panned as the slowest in the fleet less than a month ago.
Oh my, how different the game is today, but how true it is that boatspeed remains king, and on this day, the British ruled the seas once again.
The final finish delta of this most memorable match between INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli was a mere 33 seconds on the books, but in reality, it was closer than that. It was all there in one final high-speed cross. For fans of the British team, that port-starboard cross was a real pucker moment. On their final port-tack approach to the finish, the crew of Britannia appeared to have a straight shot to victory, but for one scary second Luna Rossa—closing gauge at full speed from the opposite side of the course—had the British boat locked on target.
As the two boats closed at full tilt, Luna Rossa starboard helmsman Jimmy Spithill tried his best to draw a penalty, but Britannia cruised past the Italian’s bow and straight to the finish, confident in the cross. The Italian’s protested, but umpires on the water and watching on screens on shore, saw no foul and that was the end of that.
If body language says anything, the look on Sir Ben Ainslie’s face said it all: relief. INEOS Team UK’s win came at the end of a long day for both teams after several postponements by the race committee as they attempted to square the inshore racecourse to a shifty 18- to 22-knot breeze. During the final postponement, INEOS requested a delay to repair its internal mainsail cunningham system. As sailors and shore team members tackled the problem, Luna Rossa had to know their competitor was now compromised.
After fairly conservative pre-starts by each team, both boats approached the pin-end on starboard at full speed. Luna Rossa was a few seconds early, however, and slowed just enough to give INEOS Team UK a strong position to weather. Holding the Italians to the port boundary, INEOS was the first to tack away onto port and had an open racecourse all to themselves. But Luna Rossa is plenty quick, and as Ainslie and Co., tacked at the right-side boundary the two boats met again. Here the Italians had only one move in the playbook, a leebow tack, which would give them control once again. It wasn’t the precision maneuver they needed, however, and INEOS was able to execute its strategy, turning through the first weather gate with Luna Rossa a mere 2 seconds behind.
The two AC75s drag raced down the right side of the course, on port jibe with Luna Rossa sailing lower and faster—perhaps a result of INEOS being unable to manipulate its cunningham system. The British, however, had a windshift in their favor as they hooked around the starboard gate mark and momentarily extended their lead as the two teams split. But as the wind shifts one way, it’s bound to shift the other way eventually. This time, the Italian’s hooked into a more favorable breeze and led through the next weather gate. The tables had turned with a 19-second delta in favor of Luna Rossa.
After another split down the run, Ainslie and Co., chipped away at the Italians’ lead and followed them through the fourth gate. A beautifully executed rounding tack—demonstrating that Ainslie now has full confidence in his boat and his team—forced another split. The Italians were quick to tack and cover. In the next cross, Ainslie safely passed behind and sprinted to the right side of the racecourse, sniffing out the next windshift and eventually retaking control of the race as they foiled through the final windward gate—separated by a single second on the clock.
After switching sides and swapping the lead a few times on the final heart-stopping run they came together once more in what will be remembered as the highlight moment of the semifinals (aside from American Magic’s capsize, of course). INEOS, on port, had the cross—just barely it seemed. Spithill did his best to show the umpires he had to maneuver to avoid them, but it wasn’t enough. The umps weren’t buying it.
Two “ghost-race” starts that followed were procedural because of the absence of American Magic, so both INEOS and Luna Rossa earned an additional point, but those points didn’t matter in the end as INEOS had already punched its ticket to the Finals.
While the Brits will take full advantage of three weeks of recovery and development, Luna Rossa will meet American Magic on January 29 in the first-to-four semi-finals. Reports from within the American team, reinforced by skipper Terry Hutchinson in the post-racing press conference, confirm the repair is going to plan and the team will be on the water later this week. The monumental task ahead for them cannot be understated.
INEOS Team UK’s turnaround performance is certainly the running story of the regatta thus far, but should the American phoenix rise from the ashes and defeat Luna Rossa, what an amazing story that would be, another incredible chapter in an event proving to be anything but predictable.