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America’s Cup 36: The Wrong Call

The Italians of Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli were putting on the performance of the regatta, but one split-second decision made it crumble to pieces.

March 16, 2021
Emirates Team New Zealand AC75
The biggest challenge for Luna Rossa is the Emirates Team New Zealand is getting faster by the day, and no lead is safe enough. ACE/Studio Borlenghi

Race 9 of the 36th America’s Cup was Luna Rossa’s race to lose, and lose it they did in spectacular fashion to put the first-to-seven series at 6-3. One call did it all, and this one was squarely on Francesco Bruni in one critical and pivotal moment of the best race of the match thus far.

Before we get to this moment, let’s link the highlights leading to it: With a textbook and beautifully executed start by Jimmy Spithill and Co., the Italians were strong and in controlling position to weather of Emirates Team New Zealand as they crossed the line and raced to the left boundary. A simultaneous tack at the boundary then set up the most pulse-racing port-tack drag race of the entire Cup. Separated, laterally, by only a boatlength, it was a battle of boatspeed and height between Peter Burling and Bruni, Luna Rossa’s port-side helmsman, who smoothly transitioned between a high mode and a speed-build mode to eventually flick the Kiwis near the middle of the course.

Perfectly executed covers up the rest of the first beat and down the run, Spithill and Bruni were clicking and confident as they controlled the race and worked the windshift when they needed to. Emirates Team New Zealand, however, were unrelenting in their pursuit, reeling the Italians in meter by meter, often 2 or 3 knots faster across the water.

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Like a big cat playing with its prey, the Kiwis were poised to pounce as the two boats converged at the bottom of the course. But in the match’s most aggressive move engagement yet, Spithill forced Emirates Team New Zealand deep into the bottom right corner of the course—almost pushing them past the leeward gate layline.

In a normal displacement boat, Spithill could have dug his rivals even deeper and ended it right there, but he too needed to jibe for the mark and nailed the layline, leaving the New Zealanders in his gas.

Aggressive as it was, it wasn’t enough to deter nor rattle Peter Burling, who slipped crossing the boat after the rushed jibe, jumped into his cockpit, took control of the wheel and then whipped the boat around the leeward gate and into a tack. It was an incredible move that set up the race-turning point at the top the final beat, where the boats came together one last time. With Emirates Team New Zealand steaming across the course from the right and seemingly bow-to-bow, Spithill had his eyes locked on the Kiwi boat.

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America's Cup yachts racing
Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli tack to cover against Emirates Team New Zealand in Race 9 of the 36th America’s Cup ACE/Studio Borl

In the 23 seconds that followed, the Italian’s race unraveled.

Spithill: “Crossing at the moment…just ahead of crosswind, but just crossing right now.

Big focus on the performance here… you’re crossing.”

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Bruni: “I think from now on we protect the left.”

Spithill: “You want to protect left?”

Bruni: “Yes.”

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Spithill: “You’re going to have to…in 3…oh you gonna soft cover?”

Bruni: “Soft cover.”

Pietro Sibello (mainsail trimmer and strategist): “No, no.”

Spithill: “OK, copy.”

Bruni: “2…1…board down.”

Seconds after the tack was complete and the New Zealanders tack away to clear, Bruni knows the damage he’s inflicted and tries to justify his split-second decision.

“There’s was a big hole to my right,” he says, “To my eyes there was…”

Bruni’s comms are interrupted by Spithill, who says, “There’s more pressure on the right at the moment.”

Bruni: “You think so?”

In fact, there was more pressure, and the mother of a right-hand shift that sent Emirates Team New Zealand wheeling through the final gate with an insurmountable lead.

“It’s a tough moment and was a tough moment when it happened,” Bruni said after racing. “Mainly because we did a fantastic race until then and it was about reading the pressure on the water. We saw a light patch on our bow and decided to protect the left, but clearly there was a big puff on the other side of the lull. We tacked and the decision was wrong. I admit when I make the mistake.”

How does he possibly approach today’s win-or-lose Race 10?

“We’ll keep doing the same,” Bruni says. “Improve the performance of the boat, the team and everyone. I’m happy to have one night to think about it.”

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