The racing that begins in New Zealand this week will supply some answers to the myriad questions that have built up around the nine America's Cup challengers over the past months. Boats have been polished, tuned, and tested, while skippers and crews have struggled to reach their physical and mental peaks. So the long battle begins on the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, and by mid-January, 2003 one of the contestants will have won the Louis Vuitton Cup and will be preparing to go up against the New Zealand defenders of the America's Cup in mid-February.
This first round, in which each of the nine syndicates will race each other just once, is slated for October 1 to 11. The weather in Auckland is volatile at best at this time of year, and it is expected that 11 days will be little enough time to get off the eight races. But all scheduled races will be sailed. The second round is scheduled to begin October 22.
It has been said frequently that in the America's Cup the first five minutes of the first race tells the whole story. But that is not likely to be true in the Louis Vuitton series as the racing will be spread over seven separate series spanning four months, with sufficient time between each series to allow the syndicates to make changes in the boats. Also, all but one of the challenging syndicates has two new boats available, and the rules allow that either may be used in any series.
But the early racing could see trends developing. The teams that started early, have trained longest and budgeted their time most wisely should be fast off the mark and they could establish a habit of winning that would be hard to surpass.
Over the past two weeks there has been a series of semi-formal races among the challengers. Taken at face value the Swiss challenger, Alinghi, with Russell Coutts at the helm and Brad Butterworth calling the shots, has looked very sharp. This was to be expected, as Coutts and Butterworth, both New Zealanders, were the helmsman and tactician aboard NZL 60 when that boat swept the 2000 Cup finals against Italy's Luna Rossa in five straight races. Also showing flashes of speed and efficiency have been the Oracle/BMW challenge from San Francisco, led by Larry Ellison, and Craig McCaw's OneWorld team from Seattle.
The Swedes and British have also exhibited periods of impressive speed, and as their afterguards learn more about the Hauraki Gulf and the need to change gears rapidly and often, these talented teams are likely to become ever more threatening.
But perhaps not too much can be drawn from these informal encounters. In a recent interview with the British journal Yachting World Coutts is quoted as saying "these are informal races and you don't know what the opposition is putting into it, or whether they're showing all their cards—I doubt whether they are..." By chance most of these preliminary races were held in medium wind strengths, and obviously the results might have been very different in either stronger or lighter conditions.
|"These are informal races and you don't know what the opposition is putting into them...whether they're showing all their cards—I doubt whether they are."|
Meanwhile the second Swiss boat, SUI 75, is upside down in the shed with its keel removed having what the rumor mill describes as "major hull changes." So it will be SUI 64 on the starting line for Coutts and company.
Early "research" on the water indicates that nearly all the boats are very close in major measurements of length, beam, sail area and displacement. The design team that appears to have strayed furthest from the pack is the Bruce Farr office, which designed the Oracle/BMW boats, USA 71 and 76.
These boats, which are near sisterships, have mainsails considerably smaller than any of the others, which indicates that the boats must be either lighter, or are taking a draft penalty, or some of each. The mainsail area on the Farr boats is about 2,012 square feet, compared to the average of 2,250 square feet for the rest of the fleet. This is a difference of roughly 247 square feet. The foretriangle on the Oracle/BMW boats appears to be very similar to the others, between 1,129 and 1,162 square feet, so the Oracle/BMW headsails and spinnakers would be similar in area to those of the opposition.
The only Team Dennis Conner boat to be sailing in Auckland so far is USA 66. The other TDC boat has recently had about 30 feet of its bow replaced after the boat sank due to a rudder-post failure and the bow was seriously damaged while hitting the bottom of the ocean near Long Beach, CA, in August. A close look at the Conner boats, which are representing the New York Yacht Club, indicate they are the narrowest in the event, not only at deck level, but at the waterline as well. Nearly all this year's boats are narrower at deck level than the 2000 boats. For example, photos indicate that the One World boats, designed by Laurie Davidson, are several inches narrower than NZL 60, which won the cup in 2000 and was also designed by Davidson.
The Team Dennis Conner boats—again named Stars & Stripes—are scarcely more than 10 feet wide on deck, about three meters and change. This configuration would result in a hull form that lacks stability in comparison to the wider boats, and all else being equal the NYYC entries could be expected to heel as much as 12 degrees more than many of the others when sailing upwind in 15 knots of true wind. There is therefore the suspicion that the Conner boats may be incurring a penalty by carrying keels deeper than the 13-foot non-penalty limit in order to get the 40,000-pound lead bulb at the bottom of the keel a bit lower to offset the lack of hull form stability.
Chief measurer Ken MacAlpine and his team of measurers have been working since early September to check hulls, keel, spars and sails of all the boats that will be racing in the first round. This is an exhaustive and painstaking process that goes on day and night. Flotation measurements have to be done in dead calm water, which frequently can be found only in the wee small hours.
All but two of the Louis Vuitton boats have remained been hidden by skirts—shrouds that hide the underbody, including the keels and rudders. Because there is still plenty of time to make changes during the long elimination process, designers don't want to give anything away. The two camps that have left their boats undraped are Team Dennis Conner and Italy's Mascalzone Latino, the one-boat program led by 45-year-old shipping billionaire Vincente Onorato. Onorato, whose compound is wide open to the public, says he is challenging this time, not to win, but to learn and to have a good time, and he expects to return to the America's Cup wars as many times as it takes to make his presence very well known.
If Conner's boats differ from the others only because they are very narrow, then there is nothing to hide by draping them, as all the challenging boats have been built and if very narrow turns out to be very fast, there is nothing the others will be able to do about it.
The Louis Vuitton Cup by Bruce Kirby
America's Cup Preview by Bruce Kirby
America's Cup Design Retrospective by Bruce Kirby
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