PRADA Cup 2021 – Dockside
The quote of the day from the opening press conference came from INEOS Team UK’s Ben Ainslie after acknowledging the drubbing he and his teammates took after stumbling through the Prada America’s Cup World Series in December. Looking up from the bottom of the development curve a few weeks ago, he admitted the hundred-plus team responsible for giving the sailors a competitive platform has been turning over every stone they could find.
“The team has been working flat out since the World Series and we think we have improved a lot from where we were,” Ainslie said. “We have brought a lot of new parts online including a new rudder, new rudder elevator, new mast, new mainsail, and new headsails. Then alongside that we have made modifications to our foils, to the aero package on our hull and we have changed the systems inside the hull.”
And long as that work list may be, it’s only the tip of berg. Opportunities for gains with technique and boathandling have been dissected and adapted in every way possible, and if observations of the “rehearsal races” conducted earlier in the week are any indication, the British challenger is already in a better place than they were before the Christmas intermission.
The same can be said for the 36th America’s Cup race committee, led by regatta director Iain Murray, a true veteran of sailing’s pinnacle event. He orchestrated the oftentimes unhinged circus of the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco and thus far he’s been able to manage the numerous technical and curveballs thrown at him and his team thus far, in particular the complex Race Management System that’s responsible for communicating real-time racecourse data direct to the boats, which the respective afterguard squads rely on for entering the starting box on time and knowing where the course boundaries are set at all times. It was buggy in the World Series, and thus the need for the rehearsal races.
“The information has always been coming from us, the question is whether it was getting to the competitors,” Murray said in the press conference. “There’s a collaboration here between the RMS people and obviously the technicians [with the teams] to get that interfaced and debugged. I think, from what I saw, the little I heard is a good sign that it was all working well. They knew when to start, they knew where the boundaries were and the complaint box had nothing in it, so…I think we had a good work out over the past few days.”
It remains unclear what the protocol should be if RMS communications to any one boat (or both) fail at any time during a race. Nowhere in the AC racing rules is there reference to a team being able to file for redress based on a failure of the RMS. A follow-up question to Murray and race organizers was not answered as of press time (nor during the press conference, which was abruptly ended before more than 40 journalists on a Zoom call could field questions—myself included).
Assuming such race management system issues are now sorted out, the racing begins with Ineos Team UK and American Magic squaring up for the first race of the series, with Ineos rolling right into a match with Luna Rossa. Both will be telltale pairings and an opportunity for Ineos to check back in with the benchmark challenger American Magic, second in the World Series to Team New Zealand. Ineos’ match against the Challenger of Record will be most interesting to see if Ainslie continues to take a more aggressive approach to the Italians, who observers adamantly agree are remarkably quick in a straight line and especially in their maneuvers.
“It will be very interesting to see the improvements every team has made in the Challenger Series, both in their developments and modifications and how well each team can handle their boat,” Ainslie says. “The more racing we get…the more our strategies and tactics will develop. We have only begun scratching the surface of the potential of these AC75s. It is a fascinating challenge for us as sailors and it should be a real spectacle for the fans watching here in New Zealand, back home in the UK and across the world.”
American Magic’s skipper and tactician, Terry Hutchinson, who has seen his share of challenger-elimination races, knows too well to not get to focused on the results too early in the series. The World Series is now ancient history, he noted at the press conference, and the team’s intent is to ultimately get the Cup Match, whether by winning a bye through winning the round-robins, or by having to sail their way into the finals the hard way. Either way would work, he says, because racing can be equally as valuable as time and effort spent modifying the boat—an all-consuming effort now underway with all teams in Auckland.
“What we saw from the Defender the other day is they’ve made steps beyond where they were. After the World Series, we got pretty heavily into just straight-line boat speed development and then from there working on maneuvering and how to best keep Patriot up and out of the water. There are areas inside the boat and outside the boat that [Principal Designer] Marcelino Botin and the designers wanted to improve. There’s so much to gain in just racing the boat well. You’re continually putting yourself under pressure. If you change things under the water [on the foils] you lose time on the water. It’s about striking that balance.”
From where Iain Murray sits, all the teams are getting faster and more confident with their platforms, and the result be quality racing. “I’m starting to see the match racing evolve and coming to the surface,” Murray says. “The fundamentals of matching will be on the table come racing tomorrow.”
And, so it begins: the race to the Match and the race to avoid elimination. It’s all on from here on out.