This time it wasn't a fickle wind favoring one boat over the other, or the errant spectator fleet getting in the way of the competitors; today's third race of the Louis Vuitton finals was lost by AMERICA ONE through tactical errors which led to crew blunders which led to gear failure and finally, to the withdrawal of the American contender from the race.
Through it all, Italy's LUNA ROSSA blasted unscathed through the 25 to 30 knot breeze and steep, damaging waves that were kicked up by a strong tide ebbing against the wind. It was the kind of day to test boats and men, and Italy's silver and red machine drove to what in the end was an uncontested victory. The Italians are now up 2-1 for the series. The first to win five races advances to sail against New Zealand for the America's Cup in late February. Tomorrow's forecast is for even more wind, so there is a strong possibility of the race being cancelled.
Paul Cayard and his crew aboard AMERICA ONE got into difficulty half way down the first run, having held a very narrow margin at the end of the first weather leg. They jibed after the rounding and headed off on starboard tack, while the Italians bore off and remained on port for some minutes, then jibed back towards their opponent. For several minutes the two 80-foot sloops were surfing down the huge waves at up to 15 knots, both on starboard jibe, with the American boat to windward and appearing to hold her slight lead. Then Cayard jibed to head back across LUNA ROSSA's bow. The Italian boat caught a couple of big waves and surged up to AMERICA ONE, so that as they came together, the Americans did not have the lead after all, and before helmsman and crew could react, their spinnaker had fouled the Italian chute and a penalty turn was assessed against the Americans.
In attempting to jibe away from LUNA ROSSA, the fore deck crew on the American boat lost control of the spinnaker pole and for minutes the huge green sail flew loose, swaying back and forth and knocking the dark gray and green boat over from gunwale to gunwale like a racing dinghy. Meanwhile the Italians, appearing to thrive in the conditions, blasted on towards the leeward mark, did a perfect spinnaker drop and started up the second beat with a lead of 23 seconds.
Speaking of the incident after the race, Cayard said, "We were having a little trouble keeping control of the boat and you probably saw the boat rock over. We've all pushed our rudders pretty small and the sails are so big. There's a lot going out there." It was a reference to the tendency of all the designers to make the rudders of the America's Cup boats as small as possible consistent with being able to steer the boat. The small blade improves speed dramatically in moderate winds, but can make the boats hard to control when sailing downwind in a lot of breeze and big waves.
The foredeck problem on AMERICA ONE led to a very late spinnaker drop, which in turn meant that the jib was late going up. Then there was a problem with the jib halyard and for much of the ensuing weather leg the sail did not appear to be fully hoisted. LUNA ROSSA continued to pull away, covering loosely, and arrived at the second weather mark with a lead of 51 seconds.
If you thought that first downwind leg was a bad one for AMERICA ONE, you had to see the second one! At the beginning, the American boat seemed to gain a bit, picking the waves well and managing some prolonged surfing. Then it stuck its bow into the back of a particular steep sea and the boat slowed dramatically, putting extreme pressure on sails and rig. The weak link was the spinnaker and it blew to shreds. Cayard said later that if the chute had not blown, the strain probably would have pulled the mast out of the boat.
As the bow buried, knee-deep water swirled around the foredeck and the jib, which was bagged and lying on the deck, was washed overboard with the sheets still attached. This slowed the boat even further and the sheets were cut to get the jib free from the boat. The sail was picked up by a support boat but the rules do not allow gear lost overboard to be put back aboard.
By the time the mess was cleared up on the American boat, LUNA ROSSA had rounded the mark far in the lead and was well up the final beat. AMERICA ONE was hurting badly, the crew could hear ominous noises coming from the severely strained mast, and they still faced a penalty turn; so it was not a difficult decision for Cayard to point his bow toward the harbor to get ready to fight another day. LUNA ROSSA completed the course to gain her victory point, but did not hoist her spinnaker on the final run, and chose to tack around instead of jibing as she sailed down the last leg.
Cayard said after the race that the mast appeared to have damage that could not be repaired in time for tomorrow's race and that the AMERICA ONE team would be stepping the spar from their other boat, USA 49.
Off the starting line the boats were virtually even, both on starboard tack with LUNA ROSSA well to windward and slightly astern of AMERICA ONE. From there was a heavy air drag race almost to the port tack lay line. Decks were frequently awash as the long, slender bows drove through the steep waves. Neither boat showed superior speed or pointing ability. If the wind shifted subtly to the left, the American boat would look good for a bit, and when it came back the Italians were right there in the same position on their weather hip. Finally, near the lay line, Cayard managed to work a bit closer to the Italian boat and Francesco Di Angelis decided to tack off onto port.
AMERICA ONE followed immediately and the drag race continued on port tack with both boats still below the lay line. They were close enough that for a long time di Angelis felt he did not have room to tack onto starboard and allow Cayard to keep clear. He drove his boat off a bit, easing ahead and widening the gap laterally. Then he tacked, but Cayard saw it coming and tacked right on the bow of the Italian boat.
The quick move on the part of AMERICA ONE forced the Italians to go back onto port, while Cayard sailed on to the layline and tacked for the mark. Having to tack twice more to round, LUNA ROSSA was slowed down and made the turn two lengths astern. It had been a very interesting leg, with neither boat making a significant gain, and only the clever move by Cayard and crew at the top mark causing the slim separation as they rounded onto the run. From there, it was all downhill for the boat from San Francisco.
The AMERICA ONE problems began even before the race when they had difficulty getting the main halyard to lock at the top of the mast. Swaying more than 100 feet above the deck in an effort to secure the lock, bowman Greg Prussia was injured when thrown against the spar. He had to be taken off the boat and rushed to hospital with a badly bruised thigh, and is expected to miss at least two races.
Before this series began, statistics showed that the boat that reached the first mark in the lead would win the race 85 percent of the time. In the past two races the boat that has led at the first turn has lost the race. This is an indication of how close these boats are in speed and crew ability and how good fortune or bad, especially the kind you manufacture for yourself, has been playing the major role in the results.