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Jobson Report From the Hauraki Gulf

After two days of semi-final action in New Zealand, Gary Jobson offers his impressions of the racing.

December 11, 2002

Alinghi on the March
As the challenger trials for the America’s Cup progress, it’s becoming clear that the match is likely to see Switzerland’s Alinghi challenge Team New Zealand. This prospect is not popular here in New Zealand. Alinghi is sailed by the core of TNZ’s undefeated squad from 1995 and 2000. All over Auckland banners and signs display the word “loyal.” The purpose of this public relations campaign is to build support for the home team while expressing displeasure at skipper Russell Coutts who abandoned his former team.

Coutts does not seem at all phased by the “loyal” signage. He is skillfully guiding Alinghi toward the final. So far fellow countryman Chris Dickson, skipper of San Francisco based Oracle/BMW, has been completely outmatched by Coutts. In the repechage bracket, Seattle’s OneWorld and Italy’s Prada are having good races, but neither are at the level of impressive Alinghi.

The day before the first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup semifinal, Alinghi broke the top of its $400,000 mast. Within 90 minutes of returning to the harbor, Alinghi had a new mast in place.

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I’ve also noticed that after each day’s racing, while the competitors are towed back into the harbor, Alinghi stays out to continue training. This is a well-disciplined team that understands how hard it’s going to be to defeat TNZ.

The challengers have lost 15 days due to unsuitable wind. In contrast, Team New Zealand has practiced on every one of those days. And they look good. In 1995 and 2000, TNZ won because of their technological innovations and sailing skill. TNZ has an innovative new rig and their two new boats are considerably faster than their 2000 hulls.

Last summer in Europe, Coutts and TNZ skipper Dean Barker raced in a match-race event in Europe. Barker won. It must have been a wake-up call for Coutts. We could see a rematch beginning February 15.

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Notes Along the Waterfront

Spectators
About 150 boats are on the water each day to watch the races. On the docks the crowds are tiny. In 2000, thousands of people would line the harbor as the boats left for the racing. On Tuesday I counted 25 people.

Tactics
In shifty winds it’s a tricky balance between covering the competition when you’re ahead and playing the windshifts. Russell Coutts and his tactician Brad Butterworth seem to get it right every time. OneWorld lost Race 2 to Prada by failing to cover. Crewmember Charlie McKee reflected on the race, “We played it too loose and forgot that there was only one other boat out there.”

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Oracle/BMW
At a crew meeting before the first race, Larry Ellison told his team he expected to beat Alinghi four straight. It will be interesting to see if Ellison makes any changes if his team continues to lose. Benched Oracle sailor Paul Cayard is back in Auckland and is spending his time talking with people about the next Cup.

Practice Helps
Team Dennis Conner’s Bill Trenkle took Paul Page and me for a tour of their impressive compound. Trenkle said the team was able to have 50 practice races with their new boats in contrast to OneWorld’s 200 practice races. ABC’s Page, known as the voice of the Indianapolis 500, will be joining me for ESPN’s Cup coverage beginning February 14.

Multi-National Crews
Of the four boats racing in the semifinal round, eight Americans are among the 64 crew: Oracle/BMW: Jordie Shaver, Eric Doyle and Peter Holmberg; Luna Rossa: Rod Davis; OneWorld: Charlie McKee and Kevin Hall; Alinghi: John Barnitt and Josh Belsky

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Arbitration Panel Ruling
Now that the Arbitration Panel has made its ruling, the focus here is on racing. The organizers of the next America’s Cup will have to work hard on the multinational issue. This is the basic problem as knowledgeable designers skip borders.

Weather Delays
Racing on the first day of the semifinals was cancelled because the wind was blowing 21 kts. It seems absurd. If one were racing at Block Island, Long Beach or Key West, everyone would consider the wind perfect. The challengers have a narrow 7-19 knot window. They are trying to replicate the conditions expected in February. TNZ is out practicing on every windy day. If it blows 25 knots during the Cup there will be racing. The challengers should rethink their wind limits.

The Boats
The coolest part of the scene here are the racing boats themselves. They’re sleek and fast. It’s hard to capture the drama when boats of this size converge at high speeds. They’re difficult boats to handle. The sailors racing them are setting a new standard of excellence in this sport.

Close Races
While Alinghi is blowing out Oracle/BMW, Prada and OneWorld have had two lead changes in each of the first two races. This series could go the distance.

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