Victory Challenge Lives Up To Its Name

Day 1 of Act V of the Louis Vuitton Cup

Valencia0624
Stuart Streuli

VALENCIA, Spain-The first fleet race to actually count as part of the America's Cup process in over 100 years was everything that had been expected. In fact, after a bang-bang finish, with Emirates Team New Zealand passing Luna Rossa in the final quarter mile and the top five boats finishing within a minute of each other, many felt that moving back to just two boats is going to be a huge disappointment. While that's little more than wishful thinking-the Cup will remain a mano y mano duel-there is little doubt that today was yet another feather in the rapidly blooming hat of America's Cup Management. The seabreeze, which was so consistent through the match racing in Act IV, sputtered a bit today. The first attempt at a start was recalled, the first race didn't get underway until 3:30 p.m., and the breeze never crested into double digits. But perhaps that was for the best. It gave all the teams a chance to get their feet wet on a 12-boat line and limited damage to a handful of spinnakers, most of which ripped when they caught on the jumper struts during jibes. Though the campaign came together just a few months before these Acts, Victory Challenge was the star of the day. Helmsman Magnus Holmberg led his team to a second and a fourth and they lead the standings with 20 points--the fleet racing uses a high point system, the first place boat receiving points equal to the number of boats competing in the race. In second is Luna Rossa, 18 points, with the rest of the Big Four--Alinghi, Emirates Team New Zealand, and BMW Oracle Racing--tied for third with 16 points each. Just three points separate third from the two boats tied for seventh. "We're a bit surprised, I must say," said Victory Challenge strategist Mattias Rahm. "Even though we felt during the match racing that we had good speed and were a threat to the big teams, it is another thing to beat them. We just feel that we are in a good mode, that we have good speed in the boat. Today we sailed calm and easy and we were positioning our boat so we could use the speed in the boat." They also had two good starts, which Rahm added is an essential ingredient in any top-five finish, and he said with a grim, "I think we were a little bit lucky." While the committee tried to get underway on time, the breeze crapped out right as the first sequence ground down and the race was recalled and the AP flag hoisted. After a delay of an hour and 20 minutes, the committee went into another sequence. The breeze, while not much heavier than during the first start was more from the seabreeze direction and seemed fairly steady. The heavies gathered down near the pin and those that could stayed on starboard after the start. Both Shosholoza and K-Challenge were over early and had to circle back around and re-start. Luna Rossa took the early lead courtesy of a left-hand shift and maintained that for the entire race except for the final 100 yards. Emirates Team New Zealand and Alinghi also played the left early in the leg. Those three boats rounded the first windward mark first, second, and third. But there was more than one way to conquer this leg. The German team rolled its dice to the right, tacking to port around the committee boat and burying themselves in the right-hard corner. Despite a definite speed disadvantage, they rounded the first mark in fourth. For the first three legs Luna Rossa helmsman James Spithill, strategist Francesco de Angelis, and tactician Charlie McKee appeared to play the race perfectly. Defending against 11 other boats in light and variable conditions is one of the hardest things in sailing yet they did it well, extending on both the first downwind and the second upwind leg. Things appeared to swing even more in their favor as they rounded the final mark and turned toward the finish. They had a 42-second lead on Emirates Team New Zealand, which was locked into a pitched four-way battle for second with Alinghi, Victory Challenge, and BMW Oracle Racing. This advantage was emphasized when Luna Rossa jibed to port a third of way down the leg. The other four boats, concerned as they were with each other, let the Italian boat go off on its own. But this is where the Italian team's luck turned. The lead shrank as they sailed toward the middle of the course and the pack of four, led by ETNZ, closed rapidly. Within a quarter mile of the finish Spithill jibed onto starboard and crossed, by less than a boatlength, in front of the other four boats. Taking the Italian boat's stern, Dean Barker carried on port for another half dozen boatlengths and found more pressure and a favorable shift, enabling Emirates Team New Zealand to jibe and cruise across the finish line with the win. Luna Rossa had by then turned toward the finish line as well and was forced to press hard to hold off Alinghi which finished only 5 seconds in arrears. Victory Challenge and BMW Oracle rounded out the top five. "At the end of the first race we weren't quite happy with fifth," said BMW Oracle grinder Craig Monk. "But at the end of the day we were quite happy with two fifths." The second race saw the fleet invert to some extent as the breeze showed it was full of surprises. Mascalzone Latino Capitalia, which had limped across the line in last in the first race, won. And the third Italian syndicate, +39, rebounded from a 10th in the first race to take third. "The second race was good," said +39 helmsman Iain Percy, who nailed the pin on all three starts and played the left side on each first beat. "We enjoyed that a lot. We really struggle in the light winds with a 2000-generation boat. The tacticians did a great job to hold us ahead of much faster competition." On the other hand, first-race victors Emirates Team New Zealand struggled on the first two legs, rounding the first windward mark in last place after getting a little boxed up at the leeward mark rounding. They went searching for a shift or puff that would put them back into the race. While they were unable to hit a homerun, they did manage to pass the tail enders on the second beat and finishing ninth. With three more races to go in Act V, spectators are hoping for a little more wind. If 6 to 8 knots is this much fun, it's hard to imagine what it's going to look like in 12 to 16, or event 20. But as for fleet racing replacing match racing, well the sailors aren't buying that yet. "It's probably more fun match-racing," said Monk," because you get to have a close race. The team was pretty quiet because of the large splits (between the boats)," Results Points Leaderboard Race Results Overall Points Victory Challenge (4, 2) 20 Luna Rossa Challenge (2, 6) 18 Emirates Team New Zealand (1, 9) 16 Alinghi (3, 7) 16 BMW ORACLE Racing (5, 5) 16 K-Challenge (7, 4) 15 Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia Team (12, 1) 13 +39 Challenge (10, 3) 13 Desafio Español 2007 (8, 8) 10 United Internet Team Germany (6, 11) 9 Team Shosholoza (9, 10) 7 China Team (11, 12) 3