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Old 02-16-2000
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Bruce Kirby is on a distinguished road
Decision Reversed at the 11th Hour

After deciding yesterday that there would be an observer riding in the stern of the boats in the America's Cup match, which begins Saturday in Auckland, the International Jury has reversed the decision hours before the event and announced that there will not be umpires aboard. The reversal came when it was realized that the on-board judges could be exposed to dangerous radiation emissions from the telemetry that the boats carry at the stern.

Chief Judge Bryan Willis said "We cannot put the observers at risk and thus we will revert to wing boats for the observers."

A message expressing the concerns was sent to both challenger and defender. It pointed out that the only place on the boats from which a judge could accurately call overlaps and judge the proximity of the boats was right aft in the cockpit. This is where the telemetry frames are located, and is considered the "unsafe zone" on the boats. The directive pointed out that there was no sensible alternative to the far aft position, so the observers would be doing their jobs as they had done during the challenger series, from a powerboat that will attempt to stay abeam of the racing yachts to judge their relative positions.

The earlier decision to go with the on-board observers was made after days of negotiations between the Italian challengers and the New Zealand defenders. The home team had wanted the umpires on board, but the Italians were opposed to it on the grounds that the system would not be an improvement over the wing boat system, and also felt that a judge who could not speak and communicate well in Italian might cause confusion during tight situations.

The decision, also made Thursday, to allow a yacht to do a 270 degree penalty turn at any time during the race, will stand.

A penalty turn of 270 degrees means that when going to windward the yacht must do a jibe, and on a downwind leg must go through a tack. If a penalized yacht can delay the turn until later in the race it might have a chance to gain the necessary lead of about 40 seconds to make the turn and maintain the lead. This happened in the first race of the Louis Vuitton finals when Luna Rossa fouled at the start and was able to work out to a lead of more than a minute over America One and stay ahead while completing the turn just before rounding the last weather mark. Being able to carry on after fouling also can give the burdened yacht the opportunity to lure her opponent into a foul, thus canceling the offenses and putting the boats back on even terms.

It is hard to imagine that in rejecting immediate penalty turns, the committee did not take into consideration that such a rule would detract enormously from viewer interest. Surely they could hear the TV remotes clicking as viewers switched to Jeopardy or the Travel Channel. And such a rule would have supplied lots of material for the members of the non-yachting press who like to drop in every few years to ridicule the sport with their comments about watching grass grow or paint dry.

"In anything over 15 knots of wind we'll be gone in a shower of spray." With these words Team New Zealand designer Laurie Davidson expressed the importance of wind strength for America's Cup 2000, which begins Saturday and continues until one boat has won five races.

Not since the 1987 America's Cup in Fremantle, Australia, has the weather been considered such an important factor. The more we learn about the New Zealand defender and Italian challenger, the more obvious it is that the home team wants a lot of wind and the challengers would like to see moderate air. Dennis Conner won the 1987 match in winds consistently above 20 knots, and sometimes topping 30. His boat was longer and heavier than the Australian defender, Kookaburra, and carried less sail. During the challenger trials that year, Conner's Stars & Stripes had been very vulnerable in medium winds and had come close to not making it into the semifinals for that reason. That was the last time the event was held in 12-Meter yachts.

Since 1992, racing has been in the International America's Cup Class, but the performance trade-offs are similar. Sail area and length are still balanced to produce the desired result. If the designers want more length for heavy air speed, they must sacrifice sail area, which can make the boat vulnerable in lighter winds. And the reverse is true -- more sail means a shorter waterline, better light-wind performance, but lower top speed.

So, as the countdown to Saturday's opening race continues, eyes are focussed on the long-term weather pattern as well as on the boats and crews. With the New Zealand meteorology at the mercy of the fast-moving lows and highs of the far south Pacific, where there is little land to interfere, small pressure differences can produce unexpected and large deviations in wind direction and strength.

Davidson, who was co-designer of the victorious New Zealand boat in the 1995 match, told me the break-off point between the Italian and Kiwi boats should be at about 15 knots. "The guys like the heavy air, we've tested in it and we know we're very fast when it blows hard. However Tom (Tom Schnackenberg, design coordinator for the Kiwis) thinks our boat is also very good in light winds." Another New Zealand spokesperson who asked to be unidentified for fear of being accused by team-mates of undue pessimism, said "I'm afraid there won't be as much wind in the beginning as we'd like!"

In talking to Doug Peterson of the Italian design team, I learned that the Luna Rossa camp is expecting winds to be "on the light side" for the first two races, Saturday and Sunday. There is a lay day on Monday and no one is predicting what might happen to the wind after that. Peterson said he thought Luna Rossa would be as fast as the New Zealand defender upwind even in heavy air, and faster in lighter conditions. A Californian who was on Bill Koch's design team when he won the Cup in 1992 and with New Zealand when they won in 1995, Peterson is chief designer this year for the Italians, and is looking forward to making it three in a row.

He said the Kiwi boat, NZL 60, could be faster than Luna Rossa running and reaching in heavy winds as she is a few centimeters longer on the waterline and has a long flat overhang aft which might improve performance at high speeds. To make the best use of this configuration, the defenders are expected to move crew weight well aft on the downwind legs so the effective waterline will be extended out to the transom. KZL 60 has a short, steep forward overhang and a long flat aft overhang, so with crew weight moved aft, the waterline will increase appreciably at the stern but will decrease very little at the bow. This is a configuration aimed specifically at stronger winds.

When the wind is below the 12 to 14 knot range, Peterson expects the New Zealand boat to be in trouble. He said, "They have a lot more wetted area than we do. Their bulb is eight feet longer than ours and will cause a lot more drag and their boat is six inches wider at the waterline, which also means more wetted area and more drag." Driving home the point he added, "Wetted surface really matters in these boats."

Speaking of the unusual New Zealand rig, which features a mast with three spreaders rather than the usual four and has "diamond" stays coming into the mast below the spreaders to form a crisscross pattern of stays, Peterson said, "The idea is not bad. There might be a windage advantage, but they say it will be more controllable in heavy air, and I can't see that." The New Zealand design team expects their millennium rig, as the unusual staying system has been dubbed, to be a lot stiffer in strong winds, resulting in better control of the mainsail leech and improving the boat's pointing ability.

One very interesting point about the predicted efficiency of these boats in various wind speeds—and at this point everyone is guessing— is that during many of the races since the challenger trials began last October, the wind on the Hauraki Gulf has, in fact, straddled the 12 to 15 knots range, which the designers have indicated is the critical wind velocity. It has ranged up and down, being as low as 10 knots and as high as 25 in the same race. Shifts of more than 15 degrees either side of the norm have not been unusual, and on several occasions the wind has gone through as much as 60 degrees in one direction after the start.

In match racing, the luck, the gambles, and the clever decisions go one way and then the other, and average out over a long series. In the end, the faster boat nearly always wins; but in America's Cup 2000, the faster boat one day could well be the slower boat the next. Or the faster boat at any particular minute, could be slower the next minute. So unless the wind gets stuck well above, or well below, the magic range, the series should go to at least eight races.

And what is the prediction from your confused correspondent? Oh, what the hell, New Zealand in eight!

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