New Zealand won the first race of America's Cup 2000 in conditions thought to favor the Italian challengers. The wind blew from the southwest at 10 to 13 knots and sometimes shifted through as much as 15 degrees. Does today's result mean that Italy's Luna Rossa will be better off in stronger breezes, or that the New Zealand boat will be even more dangerous when the Hauraki Gulf serves up the 18 to 25 knots winds for which it is famous?
Team New Zealand maintains its lead enroute to the top mark.
The 1:16 victory for Team New Zealand was not established through speed alone. During the first leg, when the boats were close to each other, Luna Rossa appeared at times to be pointing just a fraction higher than her black rival, but the New Zealanders seemed to have a slight speed edge, and when they had the opportunity they would gain by sailing lower and faster.
The race marked the end of the tension and stress that had built up through the long season of challenger trials, during which time the New Zealanders had only themselves to race against. No one knew the relative speeds of the boats and there is still a question, but at least we know that neither is vastly superior and that this is likely to be a close series as each team struggles to win the five races that will mean victory.
The right hand side of the course had looked better for some time before the start, and during slow and careful manipulating of his opponent during the pre-start ballet, Kiwi helmsman Russell Coutts kept the Italians away from the right hand end of he line. At the start, Italian helmsman Francisco de Angelis had to squeeze up on starboard tack to get around the starting pin, while further to windward the New Zealanders hit the line with full speed.
The Italians got up to speed quickly and for several minutes there was a drag race towards the port tack lay line, with neither boat gaining or losing. The wind was uncharacteristically stable. However, the Hauraki Gulf was not going to let it stay that way for long and the wind gradually headed the boats, giving a slight edge to Luna Rossa. As the wind went further left, the Italians closed the gap and Team new Zealand was forced to tack off to the right. Luna Rossa followed and again the pair was hooked up in a sprint, this time towards the starboard tack lay line, with the Italians well to windward and in the lead by about a length.
Both crews could be seen making small adjustments in an effort to gain an advantage in either speed or pointing as navigators and tacticians eyed each other across 100 yards of ocean. It was like the early stages of a boxing match where the fighters dodge and weave in an effort to find their opponents' weaknesses.
New Zealand sailed into a slight header and was the first to tack. As the boats converged Luna Rossa was ahead, but not far enough to risk crossing. They tacked ahead and slightly to leeward of the black boat, and the Kiwis tacked back onto port. When they tacked and headed towards each other for the second time Luna Rossa had gained a few feet and it looked as though she might be able to cross and gain the right side of the course. But Italian tactician Torben Grael chose to play it safe and again the Italians tacked ahead and to leeward.
After the race Grael said, "that second cross was the best one for us, but still it would have been very scary to cross them, especially against those very experienced guys. It was early in the race and we shouldn't take a risk to cross like that.
It was on the third encounter that Coutts made the move that propelled the home team into the lead. As they converged, with New Zealand having gained about half a length since the previous crossing, Coutts laid his boat off a bit and drove down towards the Italians. He had the starboard tack advantage and the move forced de Angelis to tack early. As he did, the New Zealanders headed back up onto course with a lot of speed and sailed up abeam and well to windward of Luna Rossa. With a slight increase in the wind and a further shift to the right, Coutts was able to lift off his opponent and move ahead at the same time.
From there on New Zealand controlled the race. Nearing the weather mark, di Angelis tried two fake tacks, but could not catch the Kiwis off guard. Both times the shot into the wind and back down onto course cost the Italians more than it cost Team New Zealand and the gap between them increased. At the turn the black boat led by 22 seconds.
As they rounded, the Kiwis bore off and had a perfect spinnaker set on port tack; but Luna Rossa chose to do a jibe set to get some separation from her opponent. This maneuver, which required them to do a much bigger turn, slowed the Italians down and NZL 60 poked her nose ahead another length and a half. With the wind now down to 10 knots, both were using asymmetrical spinnakers and the one on the New Zealand boat appeared to be flatter and with a lower clew.
Moderate conditions on Harouki Gulf have yet to show a distinct speed advantage for either team.
They jibed towards each other and as they converged NZL 60 jibed in front of the Italians. She had gained a good two lengths since the rounding. They held a long port tack with Luna Rossa sailing directly in the wake of Team New Zealand. When Coutts reached the starboard tack layline, he jibed and headed straight for the leeward mark. The Italian boat jibed astern but to windward and as they approached the mark they were too high and had to choose between sailing lower and slower, or making two more jibes. They chose to sail low and lost more ground. At the turn, the New Zealanders had pulled out to a 36 second lead. Luna Rossa tacked immediately after rounding and the Kiwis tacked to cover.
Up the second weather leg Russell Coutts and his tactician Brad Butterworth seemed to be on fire. Everything they did paid off. At times they covered closely and at other times would play the wind instead of their opponent. Half way up the beat they allowed Luna Rossa to sail well to the left, and sure enough there was a big right hand shift. The Kiwis tracked on it and doubled their lead. At the weather mark they had worked out to just over a minute.
On this beat the defenders demonstrated their ability to either point high or foot fast as they played the windshifts to perfection. The New Zealand mainsail is a bit fuller than the main on the Italian boat and it seemed to give them the ability to go much faster when they laid off.
Luna Rossa in hot pursuit, takes advantage of increased velocity to close the gap.
But Luna Rossa was not finished yet. On the second downwind leg they benefited from an increase in wind strength and were able to sail lower and faster to ride up on the New Zealanders. By the time the new breeze reached the leading boat their opponent had cut the time from more than a minute to only 25 seconds - a gain of 38.
The wind was light up the final beat, but NZL 60 was still able to play her game of hitting every shift just right and gradually pulling away. The Italians made a few tacks, but did not really force a full-fledged tacking duel, perhaps realizing that the home team seemed able to gain ground on each encounter.
At the final weather mark the lead was 1:16 and as they sailed down the run for the finish, the wind was back up in the 13 knot range and there were no significant gains or losses. The New Zealanders roared down the corridor formed by the huge spectator fleet and crossed the line to the horns, hoots and hollers of their countrymen. The rejoicing aboard was subdued, with a few high fives and handshakes. The victory had been the work of a highly professional group of sailors who had waited five years to show that they would be worthy defenders of the America's Cup.
There is no racing Monday and the next race is scheduled for Tuesday.