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America’s Cup 36: A Day of Small Margins

The America’s Cup Defender and Challenger agree on one thing: their respective boatspeeds are comparable, and with the series tied at 2-2, small differences on the racecourse will make a big difference in the end.

March 12, 2021
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AC75 from above on blue water with sail shadow
Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli carve into a turn on Day 2 of the 36th America’s Cup Carlo Borlenghi/CO

When Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Peter Burling was asked at the press conference yesterday in Auckland to summarize the second day of races in the 36th America’s Cup, in which each team sailed home with a race win, he responded succinctly (as he does best): “Small margins determined the outcomes.”

It’s unclear what those small margins are exactly. Each of the races weren’t remotely close. Luna Rossa simply controlled the first race out of the port boundary and sailed away from there. Ditto for the second race, with roles reversed. The pattern of this Cup is clear: he who controls the first boundary exit controls the race. The only thing the trailing boat can do, says Luna Rossa helmsman Francesco Bruni, is hope for a mistake — a big mistake.

Now practically four years and four races into this 36th America’s Cup, big mistakes shouldn’t happen. But they do and they will. That’s the unpredictable nature of sport and the imperfect humans that fly these complex vessels on a ridiculously small racecourse. Such reliance on the lead boat making a major mistake, and the low likelihood of that actually happening, is what’s making the 2-minute start dance so hypercritical.

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Win the start, win the boundary, and then—as Jimmy Spithill would say: “Keep it cool, boys.”

Now, about that start. Much ado has been made by the race commentary about the power of the port-entry boat, which so far has gone on to win every race. Burling puts this particular statistic into coincidence column. Yes, the port boat has one less maneuver and the ability to return to the line at will, but, he says, it’s really the final 30 seconds that makes you strong off the start. Or not.

In the first race of the day, it was the Italians that crossed the line strongest, setting up perfectly with a mastery of speed control, switching between both foils in the water to slow their approach and then to one for the speed build. Team New Zealand has the technique wired as well, and so perhaps the small margin to which Burling refers is simply who’s got the better angle and speed as the bows cross the starting line. Luna Rossa, set up to weather in the first race, were 2 knots faster at the start, with plenty of room to leeward to rumble. They were strong, Bruni confirmed over his communication device.

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When Team New Zealand came off the boundary Spithill had an easy piece, but rather than play it safe with a soft leebow, he held for a few more seconds to—as he likes to say—to step on the Kiwi throat. With a sharp and perfectly executed leebow tack, the Italians owned Team New Zealand. Burling tried to hang in Bruni’s bad air, but soon after had to bail. Race over.

Luna Rossa AC75 starting America's Cup
Luna Rossa enters the starting box against Team New Zealand on Race Day 1 of the 36th America’s Cup. Carlo Borlenghi/COR

In the next start, with Team New Zealand on the port entry this time, Burling looped back first to the line with a slow jibe while the Italians set up high with a tack. As they approached the line, Spithill charged the New Zealanders down the line as both boats sailed parallel to it. With matching speeds across the start, however, Team New Zealand had the Luna Rossa tight on its hip where they wanted them. The Italians tacked away to clear their air, chase the next puff and set up the split, but the New Zealanders easily owned the first cross. Race over. All the Italians could do was wait for a mistake from the Kiwi boat. Now keep in mind, major mistakes are still a real thing with the supplied Foil Control System. While trailing later in the race, Francesco Bruni set up for a jibe by pressing a foot button that should have triggered the windward foil to drop. It didn’t budge. He stomped his cockpit floor again. Nothing. On the third stomp, it finally dropped, but it was too late, the massive foil arm dragged through the water and Spithill used all his tools to get the boat back onto its foils.

Bruni later raised his hand to own up to this mistake, happy that they were behind at the time and stating it won’t happen again—with the same button, which makes me wonder whether it was really his fault or the failure of a simple electrical connection. I suspect the later, but Bruni is sticking to his misstep story. Still, with the races as close as they’ve been, from here on out, when a foot toggle gets fired, it better work. If it doesn’t, work a small margin in these AC75s becomes a big one in the blink of an eye.

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