The Louis Vuitton Cup challengers have been racing against each other since October 18 of last year. In the beginning there were 11 boats. Then the field was reduced to six for the semifinals which began January 2. The two teams that have advanced to the finals are AMERICA ONE, representing the St. Francis Yacht Club of San Francisco, and Italy's LUNA ROSSA.
With all this racing behind them, the two particular boats that meet tomorrow to decide who will challenge New Zealand for the America's Cup have never raced against each other before. Italy will be using the first LUNA ROSSA, ITA45, that dominated the early rounds of racing, but was replaced by ITA 48 for the semifinals. The San Franciscans will be using USA 61, the second AMERICA ONE and the newest America's Cup boat in Auckland, which was not brought into service until the semifinals.
While USA 61 dominated the semifinals and appears to be superior in most respects to the earlier St. Francis boat, the one challenger that seemed to be able to match her in raw speed was the second LUNA ROSSA. Now the Italians have decided to bring in their first contender, which has had minor changes since she was last raced and which many in the Italian camp have always considered the better of their two boats.
These contenders dropped their security skirts and revealed their underbodies on Friday. It was no surprise that they appeared as similar below the waterline as they did above. Just under 80 feet in overall length, the two glistening sloops challenged the press, the public and the professionals to distinguish any significant differences.
In making predictions before the semifinals began, I chose these two teams to meet in the finals and then forecast that Paul Cayard's AMERICA ONE would be the winner. Now, having watched the semifinals, and in spite of Cayard's very impressive 9-1 record, I will reverse that prophecy and call for the Italians to win the best five of nine series and advance to the America's Cup. This forecast goes against the Auckland odds makers and most of the press corps at the Louis Vuitton media center.
As the season has advanced through the heavy winds of the last few weeks of 1999 into the more moderate conditions of the New Zealand summer, it has become ever more obvious that the speed and pointing ability of the contenders may be less important than the cerebral agility of the skippers and tacticians. The winds out on the Hauraki Gulf, which has land on three sides, is always shifty and frequently varies greatly in velocity from minute to minute. Getting to the first favorable shift after the start has proved to be the key to victory in most of the matches and arriving at the first weather mark in the lead has clinched victory in 87 percent of the races.
In the semifinals, where each boat met each of its competitors twice, Cayard and his tactician John Kostecki were the masters of this formula that catapulted them into an early lead. However, a close review of the two encounters between AMERICA ONE and LUNA ROSSA reveals that the Italians were the one team that defied the rule. The first time they met, AMERICA TRUE got the start and led by nearly two lengths when the boats came together a few minutes after the start. LUNA ROSSA was able to keep her wind clear and over the next several minutes slowly closed the gap. When a spreader tip gave way and her mast fell over the side she had drawn virtually even with the American boat. She had been going through the water just a bit faster.
Their next encounter produced the most exciting match of the season so far, when the two big sloops drove down the run to the finish side by side. AMERICA ONE's victory in this race was dictated by the call of an on-water judge who ruled that the Italians had momentarily sailed below their proper course when to windward of the California boat. The call was brought into question by reviews of film footage, but in match racing there is no appeal to the umpires' calls, and the victory went to Cayard and crew.
By far the most significant portion of that race came on the final weather leg, when LUNA ROSSA climbed up from behind, caught AMERICA ONE and squeezed around the mark a length in the lead. This was a medium air upwind contest of speed, pointing ability and acceleration. Off the starting line Cayard and crew had done a textbook job of getting to the left side, sailing into a big left hand shift and jumping into an early lead. When AMERICA ONE arrived at the weather mark with a lead of 62 seconds, the race should have been over.
The Italians hadn't read the odds sheet and they climbed relentlessly out of the dungeon until they were 25 seconds behind, starting the final weather leg. Covered closely by AMERICA ONE and driven out towards the port tack lay line, LUNA ROSSA gained almost imperceptibly on each tack. Near the top of the leg they got a bit to the right so that they approached on starboard tack while Cayard came in from the left on port tack. To the surprise of everyone - with the possible exception of Italian skipper Francesca di Angelis and his crew - AMERICA ONE could not cross ITA 48 and was forced to tack. The Italians tacked and rounded a few feet in the lead. The fact that they lost the race very narrowly in the end, could not reduce the impact of that drive to windward that AMERICA ONE could not suppress.
Now we have the Italians entering the finals with ITA 45, a boat they consider faster than ITA 48. Even with Paul Cayard's aggressiveness and tactician John Kostecki's brilliance, the Americans will have difficulty corralling the spontaneous speed of LUNA ROSSA.