By mid-afternoon Sunday, in Auckland, the ninth race of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals will be over. After four months of competition and 202 races, the challenger for the America's Cup will be revealed. Italy's LUNA ROSSA stretched the best five of nine final series to its maximum yesterday when it won two hours of high stress, bow-to-bow combat on the Hauraki Gulf to lead AMERICA ONE at every mark of the course.
AMERICA ONE struggles to keep up with PRADA. PRADA crossed the line 38 seconds ahead of AMERICA ONE
The American boat committed a foul at the end of the second leg of the six-legged course and for the rest of the race was faced with having to do a 270-degree penalty turn at some point before the finish. This added to the tension as AMERICA ONE struggled to take the lead from the Italians and get far enough ahead to execute the turn. But for the next four legs Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis and his smooth working crew did a masterful job of cutting off all avenues of escape for the Americans. With her big white spinnaker trimmed to perfection, LUNA ROSSA swept down to the finish three lengths ahead and as she took the gun the American boat dropped its spinnaker and did its turn before following across the line.
The penalty came as LUNA ROSSA, to leeward of the American boat and carrying them high of the course to the leeward mark, luffed up slowly and deliberately and caught Paul Cayard and tactician John Kostecki just a bit off guard. There was no contact, but the judges ruled that AMERICA ONE had not given their opponent enough room to head up. The Italians had made sure the maneuver was slow enough that they could not be called for not giving Cayard time to respond.
At the post race press conference Cayard said, "I think the umpire made a good call. We were just playing a little too much with fire in the windward, leeward situation. ....... There's a big obligation for the windward yacht to keep clear in that situation. I'm not going to whine about it." Cayard's conciliatory demeanor in front of the press was in contrast to his comments on the way in from the course immediately after the race, when he said. "It was surprising we got a penalty there. Nothing touched anybody." Perhaps by the time he got to the press conference he had seen the video and had a clearer overview of the situation.
Compared to the previous race, in which LUNA ROSSA seemed to be unwilling to engage the American boat and fell hopelessly behind
AMERICA ONE gains a penalty by not keeping clear of PRADA and receives a penalty.
on the first leg, the Italians had control of this match from the beginning. All the talk of how the less experienced LUNA ROSSA crew might fold under pressure was put to rest as they tied AMERICA ONE up just before the start and hit the line at the pin with a slim lead and moving faster.
From there it was another classic drag race out to the port tack lay line, with LUNA ROSSA very slowly poking her bow out ahead until she had a lead of more than a length. It was a significant gain, as a steady wind shift to the right, totaling 12 degrees, had favored AMERICA ONE and would have put her into a clear lead if she had been as fast as the Italian boat. LUNA ROSSA tacked on the lay line and Cayard chose tack to leeward of her. That set up another drag race as they closed on the mark on port tack. But the right shift was continuing and it became obvious that neither boat was laying the mark, which was to be left to starboard.
Then LUNA ROSSA got her first break. The wind suddenly came back 10 degrees to the left, lifting boat boats, so that the Italians, two lengths to windward, could just lay the mark and AMERICA ONE could not. Cayard had to make two quick tacks to get around, and trailed by 20 seconds.
The speed difference worked the other way on the first downwind leg, as AMERICA ONE closed almost imperceptibly on the Italians. After a five-jibe duel, Cayard had established an overlap to starboard of LUNA ROSSA with both on starboard tack. The Italians were still controlling the game and held their opponent well above the course to the lee mark. They forced the Californians beyond the point where they would normally jibe for the mark and then luffed up to force the foul.
|PRADA crossed the finish line 39 seconds ahead of AMERICA ONE|
There is no way to know how the need for the Americans to do a penalty turn influenced the rest of the race. They would have had to pass LUNA ROSSA and work out a lead of about 40 seconds in order to have time to make the turn and still maintain a lead. The challenger from Italy made sure this could not happen, as de Anglelis and his tactician Torben Grael covered AMERICA ONE closely, surviving furious tacking duels on the weather legs and frantic jibing acrobatics off the wind. The Americans kept the pressure high as they tried to force the Italian crew into an error. A jammed jib sheet or serious spinnaker snarl aboard LUNA ROSSA could open the door to the American crew and catapult them into the America's Cup.
But this was not the day for the San Francisco challenger to celebrate. The drama has reached its peak and tomorrow's encounter will decide whether the celebration will be conducted in English or Italian.
Today's race saw a spectator fleet of more than 600 boats carrying several thousand people out on the Hauraki Gulf; and the keenest eyes among them were members of Team New Zealand, who still do not know how they might fare against the designated challenger. Their sailing so far has been almost entirely confined to the brushes between their two new boats, while the invaders have been gradually, but definitely, improving their game as they have eliminated nine of the original eleven challengers and then driven themselves to the maximum nine races in the final round.