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Old 02-24-2000
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Bruce Kirby is on a distinguished road
Race Committee Controversy

It was bound to happen. The America's Cup Race Committee, appointed by the defending Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, is coming under fire for bending in favor of the home team by canceling Race Three on Thursday when the wind was blowing at about seven knots. Race Committee chairman Harold Bennett has defended his action by saying that although the boats might have raced in seven knots, the wind in fact was very shifty and was lighter near the windward mark.

Race Committee comes under fire for favoring Team New Zealand with weather decisions

Bennett was in touch with the race yachts during the postponement period, which lasted from the scheduled 1:15 p.m. starting time until 3:40, 15 minutes before the agreed time limit for starting a race. From about 2:15 on, the Italians, thought to be at their best in moderate airs, were anxious to get a race going, while the New Zealanders did not want to start. Luna Rossa reached briskly back and forth through the starting area under main and jib while Team New Zealand jogged around with only her mainsail set and looking very much as if she was not ready for anything, but the tow back to the harbor.

Although these boats have met only twice, both times in winds between 10 and 14 knots, there is a perception that the Kiwi boat, which leads the series two races to none, is at her best when the wind is above 12 knots, and that Luna Rossa might well be more than a match for her in lighter conditions. The boats are the same weight, coming in at or very close to the 55,000-pound top limit for the International America's Cup Class, but the Kiwi sloop carries about three square meters (32 square feet) less sail than Luna Rossa, and because she is a bit longer and wider, she is dragging somewhat more bulk through the water.

These differences are design decisions made within the class measurement rule, in which sail area and length are traded off. Length means speed in strong winds, and sail area means speed in lighter winds. From the brief periods of straight line, parallel sailing we have seen with these two boats, it would appear that the designers have come surprisingly, and coincidentally, close to establishing the performance cross-over point at 12 to 13 knots of wind, which is also the average February-March wind speed for the Hauraki Gulf.

On this topographically magnificent piece of marine real estate, surrounded on three sides by rugged hills, cliffs and volcanic peaks, the wind is seldom steady in either direction or strength. During the challenger trials between October and early February even if the wind was piping up into the mid-20s, it frequently varied in direction more than 25 degrees as it blasted and bounced its way through the peaks and valleys of the surrounding terrain and then churned across the waters of the Gulf.

In these conditions, even though the velocity might range from 18 to 25 knots—a variation of seven knots -- the boats are sailing at their top speed of 10.2 knots at all times on the windward legs. They are not slowing down in the lulls because even the lulls have a lot of punch. If the wind is veering back and forth through 20 degrees, each boat is likely to get its share of favorable shifts, especially as, during a match race, they are usually near each other.

However, in winds ranging from five to 12 knots—also a seven-knot variation—the boats will be going only about six knots at the lower end of their speed range and up to 10.2 knots at the upper end. This difference of more than four knots can quickly result in huge separation between the competitors. This is the environment in which the confident tactician might break away from the opposition and head for a patch of stronger wind that could catapult his team into a big lead in minutes.

Chief Race Officer Bennett knows these numbers and he knows the Hauraki Gulf. It is his job to conduct races that are considered fair by both participants. He reported after Wednesday's aborted outing that he had agonized over the conditions and had finally come to the conclusion that a fair race could not be held.

The Italians would like to have a go in the light and squirrelly environment in the hopes that their expected agility would get them to the favorable patches of breeze ahead of the Kiwis. It's certainly their best bet as they must win five races to take the Cup, whereas the defenders have only three more to go to achieve that goal.

Bennett and his committee are under exceptional pressure from more than the Italians. It might be argued that the only thing more damaging to the image of yacht racing than a one-sided race would be watching the yachts jog around through the huge spectator fleet for hours in what seems to be sufficient wind, and then head for home with nothing accomplished.

If they have not begun already, many potential challengers for the next America's Cup campaign will soon be knocking on the doors of prospective sponsors. How can they stir up interest in the event when audiences all over the world are asked to stare for hours at TV screens telecasting yesterday's race while today's live action is dead in the water? Like it or not, this event now relies on sponsorship, and sponsors rely on television to spread their message. At the end of the chain is a surprisingly large international viewing congregation that is supposed to get excited about the race, read the commercials and buy the products. Without this loop there would be no America's Cup.

The home town Race Committee stands accused of not starting Wednesday's scheduled match because the wind favored the challengers over the defenders. There was a lot of talk that the Louis Vuitton Race Committee, which ran the challenger trials, would have conducted a race in such conditions, and did frequently. The public perception of partiality by a race committee could be just as damaging to the sport as the reality. As they look up the course to analyze the weather and decide whether or not to race, Mr. Bennett and his team must also look within themselves to be sure they have all the necessary information to make a wise decision.

Front page image: © Carlo Borlenghi - PRADA Challenge for America's Cup 2000.

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