AMERICA ONE climbed back into contention in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals today with a resounding victory over Italy's LUNA ROSSA in winds ranging from 15 to 27 knots. It was a clean win for Paul Cayard and his Californians as they clinched the duel for starting position, then led off the line by eight seconds and managed to fend off two downwind charges by LUNA ROSSA before crossing the finish line with a 34 second margin.
It was the second American victory in the best of nine final series and brought the score to three wins for LUNA ROSSA and two for AMERICA ONE. It was a huge psychological boost for the Americans. If the Italians had won this one they would have been up four to one and would need only one more victory to advance to the America's Cup series against New Zealand.
It was also the first time that the American boat had shown superiority over the Italians on the weather legs. In the earlier races of the series LUNA ROSSA had been faster upwind in winds below 15 knots and had appeared dead even with the wind in the 16 to 19 knot range. Today there was even more wind on the first and third weather legs and Cayard had no difficulty pulling ahead of the silver and red boat from Italy. He played some big shifts to perfection, but also showed better straight-line speed. On the second upwind battle the wind eased down into the 14 to 16 knot range and the Italian boat lost only eight seconds, in spite of being closely covered by AMERICA ONE.
The downwind legs were a different matter, and on all three of them LUNA ROSSA closed the gap, almost catching Cayard on the first two. On the final run to the finish the wind had increased and become steadier, making any come-from-behind bid next to impossible.
Although it was the start that gave Cayard the victory, it was a beautifully executed false jibe on the second run that popped AMERICA ONE into the lead and gave them the comfortable win. Both boats were on starboard jibe half way down the leg and the Italians were gaining fast. Again AMERICA ONE was having spinnaker problems, with a two-foot tear appearing in the big green chute near the top. The American team set up to jibe, turned the boat downwind and then curtailed the turn. LUNA ROSSA started to cover, but also stopped their jibe with the boom amidships when they saw AMERICA ONE hesitate. At that point Cayard and crew completed their jibe onto port.
The Italians were caught off guard and in scrambling to cover, they turned the boat too fast and spun into a broach. The big white spinnaker collapsed and LUNA ROSSA slowed nearly to a standstill. Before the Italians could get squared away AMERICA ONE was hightailing it for the leeward mark with a much larger lead and with the rip in the spinnaker still holding at two feet. Italian Skipper Francesco di Angelis explained after the race that he had been hit on the head during the false jibe and had blacked out momentarily. The six foot, five inch di Angelis said, "I stopped that first jibe with my head, and then there was a moment of darkness. But I remember the main did not go out as quickly as possible."
In the confusion of the double jibe the Italian crew had failed to release the starboard running backstay fast enough and the boom crashed against it and stopped amidships. The huge mainsail filled in the 25-knot wind and spun the boat into a broach. These America's Cup yachts have very small rudders, which has proven a fast configuration in light to medium conditions; but when it's blowing hard and the sea is up, helmsmen sometimes have difficulty controlling the boats off the wind. When you add to that a mainsail being brought up short in the middle of a jibe, it is almost impossible to keep the boat on course. Having a helmsman who is groping to regain his full senses does not help the matter.
At the post race press conference Cayard attributed the win to his spot-on start at the committee boat, with LUNA ROSSA late and directly behind. Cayard had led on port tack below the line with 25 seconds to go, then tacked onto starboard and crossed the Italian boat with feet to spare. From LUNA ROSSA there were shouts of tacking too close, but the judges waved off the protests and the Italian boat was left with no choice but to tack for the line in AMERICA ONE's wake, and cross eight seconds late.
As she cleared the committee boat, LUNA ROSSA tacked onto port and AMERICA ONE flopped over on top of her. That really was the end of the race. The Italian boat was unable to break through the American cover. Cayard worked the right side of the course, driving LUNA ROSSA towards the starboard tack lay line, and then led into the mark with a lead of 32 seconds. It could have been more, but AMERICA ONE lost a jib sheet near the mark and Cayard had to tack briefly onto port and then back again to re-attach it.
Starting downwind both boats jibed early and held a long starboard tack. The wind was increasing and LUNA ROSSA began to work her downwind magic. She closed the gap dramatically and began to affect the American boat's wind. Then di Angelis jibed onto port so he would have the starboard tack advantage when he turned back for the mark. The boats separated and it appeared for a while that the Italian boat would hold the upper hand when they came together. But AMERICA ONE was able to retain her slim lead, jibe clear in front of the Italians and execute a perfect rounding.
LUNA ROSSA tacked onto port immediately after the turn and AMERICA ONE tacked to cover. The wind was now down to 15 knots and there was a long drag race towards the starboard lay line, with the boats again showing how close they are in these conditions. Each time the wind headed a bit, the Italians seemed to be gaining, but when they were lifted, AMERICA ONE would pull back up to her controlling position. Di Angelis then instituted an eight tack duel in which he gained a bit on each exchange, but AMERICA ONE was able to push him to the lay line and cut off the passing lane. From there it was a procession to the turn, with the American boat rounding 18 seconds ahead.
With the wind quickly rising to 25 knots plus, the second downwind leg, with its false jibe, the stunning injury to the Italian helmsman, and then LUNA ROSSA's wild spinnaker broach, AMERICA ONE catapulted into a clear and unassailable lead. It had been the best opportunity since the one-sided start for the Italians to make yet another comeback and grab the reins of victory.
AMERICA ONE was 26 seconds ahead rounding onto the final beat to windward. She found a good right hand lift half way up the leg and opened out to 42 seconds at the top mark. It was enough to hold off the Italians, who gained only eight seconds on the run to the finish and saw their two race lead dwindle to one.