PRADA Cup 2021 – Round Robin 2
By the time American Magic skipper, CEO and tactician Terry Hutchinson faced the press conference pool on Sunday afternoon in Auckland, he was composed. Sitting alone at center stage in a black chair, he was prepared for the questions to come. Less than 24 hours earlier, his team’s AC75, Patriot, was awash to the deck, held afloat by dozens of buoyancy aids and as many more pumps, draining seawater from the belly of the boat.
One poignant memory, Hutchinson says, was watching an inflatable orange buoy being hoisted to the top of the mast. Stricken nearly 10 miles from the team’s Auckland base, he thought the worst: Patriot is going to the bottom.
An army of competitors and authorities raced to keep the boat afloat, however, as critical equipment was removed and a gaping hull in the port bow section was blocked enough to allow them to tow the boat back the base—backward.
In opening the press conference, Hutchinson acknowledged the “heroic” effort from all involved, including his rivals who lent hands, divers, tenders, buoys and whatever was required to keep the boat afloat. In this tight-knit community of sailors at the pinnacle of the sport, rendering assistance, no matter the stakes of the regatta, is not even a question. As soon as the boat came to rest on its port side, having become airborne and slamming down with great force, the rescue and recovery of Patriot and its 11-man sailing team was immediately in motion. This was the day rescue had teamed train for.
Unlike American Magic’s previous AC75 capsizes during training sessions, this one played out for all the world to see, as they rounded the final weather mark of their Round Robin 2 race against Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team. With the Italians well enough in American Magic’s rear-view mirror, and with only one downwind leg to the finish, a race win was in the making as they made their approach on port tack. Patriot’s Flight Controller, Andrew Campbell, positioned at the front of the starboard cockpit, had eyes on the right-hand side of the course and reported lighter wind and a 100-meter loss to the right-hand gate mark.
From the port-side cockpit, Hutchinson and helmsman, Dean Barker, were each looking at the same thing: a big, dark line of wind coming out of the left-hand corner of the racecourse. There was a fast-paced tactical discussion, audible in the onboard comms and later detailed by Hutchinson in the press conference. At the time, there were two standard playbook options to get through the gate: a safer bearaway-and-jibe at right mark or a tack-and bear-away at the left mark. Mainsail trimmer, Paul Goodison, can be heard expressing his preference for the right mark, noting the left turn would be a “difficult maneuver.”
Barker ultimately made the decision to tack in that one fateful but calculated split-second moment.
Even with hindsight, it was the right call at the time, Hutchinson says, and perhaps it is the right call today. The tack-and-bear-away was a maneuver they’d practiced plenty of times, and the race-winning move was to hook into the new breeze and put the race away.
It was impossible to foresee what would happen next.
PRADA Cup 2021 – Round Robin 2
“Forty seconds before, it was 12.5 knots,” Hutchinson says. “And when we tacked to bear away, it was blowing 23.5 knots.”
Once Goodison crossed the boat and Barker turned the wheel there was no going back or slowing down—that would have only made it worse, Hutchinson says: “The boat is very unforgiving, and when you throttle back…you’re in as much risk as when you pull your foot off the gas pedal as when you have it on it…the boat is most at control when going fast. When you slow, the loads go up and the boat becomes unstable. It’s easier to control when it’s ripping fast.”
As the gust hit, Barker bore away long and hard at 47 knots until the rudder lost its grip. The bow skied as the boat pirouetted and crashed down on its port side, quickly capsizing and pinning some crew members beneath the massive twin-skin mainsail.
In the hours leading up to the press conference, Hutchinson and Co., had debrief the capsize plenty enough for him to be confident in the chain of events and promptly addressed a question about the mainsail appearing to be held captive by a loaded leeward (port) backstay, preventing the sail from being further eased and possibly preventing the capsize. The traveler had already been eased to the end of its track, Hutchinson explained, and when the mainsail was eased, the leech likely snagged on the backstay.
“When the traveler is all the way down at the bottom of the track,” Hutchinson said. “That’s the first giveaway that something will go wrong.”
And, boy, did it go wrong.
Hutchinson said his cockpit immediately filled with water and the boat was floating differently than what he’d experienced in their previous capsize; an indication that the situation was worse. He described having to free himself with his safety knife, and in an earlier interview with America’s Cup TV’s Shirley Robertson, he said crew mate Cooper Dressler also helped cut him free. It was, “unnerving,” he says.
With all crew members quickly accounted for, the harried effort to prevent the boat from sinking further allowed them to tow it back to the base by nightfall, where it was craned into its cradle. The team has a high level of resolve Hutchinson said to the press, and over the next eight to 10 days the boat would be rebuilt, possibly scarfing a hull panel from the team’s first boat, Defiant, and most certainly using as much of the electronics as possible from it, including the problematic and supplied Foil Control System, which Hutchinson said was recently serviced. Repairing the hull is the easy part. It’s the gremlins in the mechatronics that will be far more difficult to manage. When Patriot returns to the water, Hutchinson says, it won’t be as pretty, but he hopes it will be at the level it was before the capsize.
Dealing with inevitable issues inside the boat while also trying to win races and advance to the Prada Cup Final will be a Herculean task, but that’s a concern for the future. For now, it’s all-hands-on-deck to work whatever magic they can to return to the racecourse.
Their return is a must for the Prada Cup, which enters its second phase next weekend with INEOS Team UK undefeated and Luna Rossa perfectly capable of winning races once they sort out their software and boathandling issues, which stymied them in the early rounds. Should INEOS continue its streak with another race win this coming weekend, they will advance to the Final, leaving Luna Rossa to sail against the highly-compromised American Magic in the first-to-four Semis, which start on January 29.
The two previous America’s Cup matches have been remarkable for their dramatic turnarounds—Oracle Racing’s comeback in San Francisco and Emirates Team New Zealand’s destructive capsize in Bermuda—so if recent history means anything, American Magic cannot be dismissed altogether—yet. Now, however, is the most hyperactive development phase of the Cup cycle for these three challengers, and while two teams continue to innovate and improve on a daily basis, one of them is fighting to get back on the water knowing that the confidence in their race boat is compromised. Should American Magic pull a rabbit out of its hat, it will certainly be an amazing story.
Never a dull moment in the America’s Cup.