With various combinations of superior tactics, speed and good luck Luna Rossa, Stars & Stripes, and America One scored victories today as the semifinals of the Louis Vuitton Cup opened on New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf. The northerly wind was between 12 and 18 knots most of the time and there were , as always at this venue, some big shifts in direction that played a part in the results.
As they did battle for the first time in the year 2000, the six semifinalists brought America's Cup competition into its third century, the trophy having been won initially by the schooner America racing in England in 1851. This semifinal round will produce two finalists which will sail off to decide which will advance to race against the defending New Zealanders in February.
Although the Italian win today over America True and the America One win over the French Le Defi were expected by most race pundits, Team Dennis Conner's defeat of the highly rated Japanese could be considered an upset. Sailing their first boat, Asura, which was said to be greatly improved over her earlier configuration in Rounds One and Two, the Japanese were prevented from gaining the favored left side of the course off the starting line. At the helm of Stars & Stripes Ken Read grabbed the safe leeward position half a minute before the start. The boats hit the line virtually even, but Asura was unable to hold her weather gauge and tacked away to the right a minute after the gun.
Reed drove the big blue boat fast and low to hit the first left hand shift. Then he tacked onto port, lifted out on the Japanese and sailed into an unassailable lead. When the boats first crossed the San Diego entry led the Nippon Challenge by nearly 200 yards, and at the weather mark the lead was 49 seconds.
From the spectator fleet it looked like all roses from there on for Stars & Stripes, but on board the boat is was a different story. As she rounded the second leeward mark with a lead of more than a minute and only the final windward leg and then the run to the finish left of the race, the bottom of the spinnaker pole track broke off the forward side of the mast. The first report from the fore deck was that they might not be able to use the pole on the final run to the finish; then they got busy with hacksaw and hammer and managed to cut off the damaged bottom of the track so the car holding the inner end of the pole could be forced back into place.
Repairs were completed on the weather leg, but with the makeshift rig the pole could not be raised and lowered during jibes on the run, but had to be taken off the mast and manhandled around the forestay by two crewmembers. With the huge kite trying to take control in the 15 knot wind the maneuver was neither easy nor safe. The Japanese had minor spinnaker control problems of their own but managed to take 25 seconds out of the America boat's lead, to cross the line 55 seconds behind.
After the race Ken Read commented on the woes of being a one-boat challenge, unable to test the results of changes to the boat. "We didn't know how fast we were. We made a few changes and of course you always hope you're faster, but we didn't really know until the first five minutes of the race." Since the break after Round Three of the trials Team Dennis Conner has made only minor underwater alterations, but has stepped a new mast and acquired some new sails.
Italy's Luna Rossa started just to windward of America True after spirited pre-start maneuvers that saw America True's aggressive John Cutler take the Italians for a tour of the spectator fleet. When they hit the line, Cutler was to leeward, heading for the favored left side, with the Italian boat to windward and slightly behind. At the helm of Luna Rossa, Francesco de Angelis was able to hold on in this precarious position until he felt a subtle wind shift to the left. Then he tacked, sailed for only three or four minutes on port until he eased into a right hand shift and then tacked back. The two quick tacks gave the Italian boat a slight edge and when the boats met for the first time, America True was unable to cross and was bounced back to the left.
Luna Rossa was able to maintain her tactical advantage all the way to the weather mark, although there seemed to be virtually no difference in the speed of the boats. She rounded with about three lengths over the Californians and maintained this lead down the first run and for the next two legs, apparently unable to shake Dawn Riley's co-ed California crew. The Angeles was able to stretch out a bit on the third weather leg, again using the ever-shifty Hauraki Gulf conditions to his advantage.
From there on America True did not have a chance to get back in the race and the winning margin for the Italians was one minute. Back on shore de Angelis said "It was a very tough race, all the races we have had with America True have been tough."
In the third contest of the day Paul Cayard's America One showed a very slight edge upwind to win over France's Le Defi by 22 seconds. It was the fourth time these two boats had sailed a close race, and this time the French again proved very quick on the downwind legs, but not quite up to the task going to windward. Cayard's team was using its second boat, USA 61, for the first time, and although it looked good, it did not have the breakaway speed that had been forecast by the St. Francis Yacht Club's recent press releases. Either that, or the French have once again made significant improvements to their boat, which began the Louis Vuitton series back in October as an also-ran, but continued to improve until she was a serious contender in Round Three.
Tomorrow Italy's Luna Rossa comes up against Stars & Stripes in a test that should give a good indication of whether the Dennis Conner boat has been improved as much as was indicated in today's racing. The second race will be for the championship of San Francisco Bay when America One from St. Francis Yacht Club , and America True from San Francisco Yacht Club, continue their rivalry. The third contest will be between the Japanese ASURA and France's Le Defi.
The top boats are all very even, but the Hauraki Gulf conditions tend to minimize any speed advantages by putting the onus on clever sailing. All six boats in today's races sailed the course within two minutes and 47 seconds of each other, which is an indication of how close they are in straight-line speed.