Kiwis Prevail in Historic Match

/SW/ editor at large Gary Jobson recounts Race 3, a back and forth match between Emirates Team New Zealand and Alinghi.

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Chris Cameron/ Etnz

This America's Cup just keeps getting better and more interesting. Today's contest was a race of emotions for the 34 sailors on the two yachts. The lead changes were frequent and dramatic. This was one of the best races in the 156 year history of the America's Cup. And we are a long, long way from deciding the winner. Both teams were at times brilliant, and at other times sloppy. In the 6.5- to 9.2-knot wind range, there was little speed difference, upwind or downwind, between these boats. The waves out on the race course were huge, confused, and nasty. It was a tough day for the helmsman. At one point on the first windward leg Alinghi's helmsman Ed Baird looked over his shoulder at Emirates Team New Zealand surging into a big lead and uttered (expletive deleted) and thrust his head down. He looked mighty frustrated. Not a good thing so early in a race that promised a lot of wind changes. Alinghi's superstar tactician, Brad Butterworth, calmed Baird down and the team went to work.At the first mark ETNZ was comfortably in the lead. Tactician Terry Hutchinson had the difficult problem of deciding when to cover and when to play the shifts. It was not an easy day to figure it out. Alinghi slowly chipped away at ETNZ's lead. Baird regained his composure. In contrast, over on ETNZ, two grinders were seen laughing. This is always a bad omen in any sport--things happen when you get giddy with your good fortune.Approaching the leeward gate, the pole suddenly dropped and bowman Jero Lomas briefly fell into the water. Suddenly, the Kiwi crew looked out of sync. The rounding was wide, the spinnaker got stuck in the lead changer, several crew appeared out of position, and Alinghi was coming on fast. Butterworth and company saw the mess and were ready to pounce.As luck would have it, the wind shifted left and just like that Alinghi was back in the race. On board the Silversea Whisper 350 guests were riveted by the action. America's Cup Hall of Fame tactician Steve Van Dyke, author John Rousmaniere, and I watched in amazement. You could here a pin drop. But when one boat established a lead the partisan crowd would cheer. (For the record the Kiwis are louder on this boat than the Swiss.)One mile from the windward mark Alinghi (on port) started to dip ETNZ (on starboard). Hutchinson called for a tack to block Alinghi, but the tack was made too early. Baird on Alinghi came right back up on the wind. It was a reversal of the key moment we saw in race two. Butterworth wanted the left side of the course for the final mile and used stronger winds to round ahead by three lengths. Now there was only 3.3 miles to go. How could ETNZ possibly catch up? The giddy grinders no longer were smiling.At first ETNZ sailed low to try to get Alinghi to cover. But the Kiwis started losing and then jibed. Alinghi stretched and then threw in their covering jibe. Hutchinson called for another jibe and ETNZ crossed behind toward the lay line. Two miles to go and time was running out. Alinghi kept sailing straight, obviously comfortable with their three-boatlength lead. Steve Van Dyke mentioned that it looked like a replay of the fateful Race 7 in 1983 when Dennis Conner aboard Liberty split with Australia II. Everyone on Silversea Whisper was leaning over the rail. Alinghi was sailing near our ship. I could hear several Swiss fans yelling "Cover!" But Butterworth sailed on. And then a miracle took place. The wind on the leeward side of the course filled in with more pressure. ETNZ started gaining. It was Butterworth's turn to decide whether to cover or wait for a wind shift. He waited. The shift never arrived. ETNZ took the lead, and won by two boatlengths. Wow! Now what? Racing continues tomorrow. Alinghi has to win four of the next six races to retain the cup. This regatta is very much up for grabs. From the way I see it, the team that keeps its cool will prevail. Right now Ernesto Bertarelli has to be wonder if dropping Russell Coutts from Alinghi's roster was a mistake. With two loses in a row, the powerful Alinghi looks like it is missing the tough experience ETNZ gained in the challenger trials. Tomorrow is another the turning point, and I'll be watching with great interest.