Team New Zealand helmsman Russell Coutts gracefully accepted a no-strings-attached birthday present from his Italian rivals today, used it to forge another victory, and now is poised for a five-race sweep of this 30th running of the America's Cup. The wind varied from five to ten knots throughout the match, conditions the Kiwis had hoped they would not encounter in this first attempt to defend the trophy they won five straight in 1995.
Although Team New Zealand has the faster boat in most conditions, their win in today's fitful zephyrs was not accomplished by speed, but almost surely on a huge tactical mistake by the Italians shortly after they had gained the lead on the first leg. Perhaps New Zealand would have gone on to win the race anyway, but on Coutts' 38th birthday, the skipper and tactician aboard Luna Rossa turned Race Four over to him, gift-wrapped.
The Italian boat got off the line a few seconds behind the defenders, but for the first time in this series they were on the right and in a position to play the right side of the first leg, which has paid off handsomely for their opponents in all three previous races. When Team New Zealand tacked onto port the first time they were unable to cross the Italians and instead tacked on their lee bow, forcing Luna Rossa to go back to the right. When they met again the challenger had gained a further several feet and again New Zealand was forced back to the left.
The subtle shift was paying off for Luna Rossa and on the third meeting the Kiwis had lost a bit more, but this time they seemed to catch the Italians flat footed by bearing off, crossing astern of Luna Rossa, and heading to the right hand side. It was the first time in this series that the Italians had crossed ahead of the black boat. The Italians might have tried to tack very close on the Kiwi's weather bow in a maneuver known as a slam dunk, which is used to pin the opposing boat and prevent it tacking back immediately.
Patrizio Bertelli, head of the Prada fashion house which has sponsored the Italian Cup effort, said after the race, "...on a day when Luna Rossa proved to have the same speed as NZL 60, if not faster, suicide tactics gave the race away..."
Italian tactician Torben Grael countered with, "I think we are the first ones to feel bad about it. Patrizio has the right to be upset as well. That's why he made that statement. We didn't see it as suicide. We thought we were doing the right thing, but as it ended up, was not. That is part of racing. It cannot always go right, sometimes it goes wrong, and when it goes wrong, you might seem a little stupid."
Luna Rossa skipper Francesco de Angelis was obviously upset about the "suicide" comment by his boss and said, "It doesn't help to have it before the press conference. What I can say is that a sailing team tries to find its own strengths and resources. I don't know if that statement could make the team more angry for the next race. I think everybody has the desire inside to win, so I don't think that will change much."
The Italian team had been in the lead, but the strange tactical decision allowed the Kiwis to cross to right side. Before long the magic the home team had found on that side in all three previous races began to pay off. As the boats worked up the leg, Team New Zealand first gained back its slight deficit, and then began to lift out in the small right-hand shifts. By the time they were three quarters of the way to the mark, they had pulled into a clear lead and at the turn, they had converted the Italian blunder into a 45-second advantage. The shift to the left that Grael and de Angelis had been seeking never did materialize and, once again, they were looking at the stern of NZL 60 from a respectful distance.
Before the start, Team New Zealand revealed the "secret weapon" that has been no secret for the past month, as other teams have been able to see the home team practicing with it. It is called a Code 0 reaching sail and was developed for use during last year's Whitbread 'Round the World race by some of the teams. The Code 0 is a very light headsail that actually measures in as a spinnaker, but is used tacked to the bow of the boat ahead of the jib stay. It cannot be utilized on an upwind leg.
Today the Italians entered the starting area from the right, giving them the starboard-tack advantage as the big sloops came together. NZL 60 headed into the wind to avoid a foul and ITA 45 rounded up alongside and slightly aft. It was a typical pre-start "dial up," which is seen frequently as the opening act of the ballet that determines which boat will gain an advantage crossing the line. The Italians were first to fall away onto port tack with the idea of jibing around and holding Team New Zealand towards the left side, but when NZL 60 bore away onto port, the Code 0 was unrolled and she accelerated away from the Italian boat.
The New Zealanders were able to gain distance from their opponent, jibe around and maneuver into a controlling position. The Code 0 was then rolled back up, dropped to the deck and stowed below. Skipper Coutts said later that the specialized sail was of questionable use today as there was a nine-knot breeze blowing at the time, and that the Code 0 is designed for really light airs, where acceleration can be a problem.
Team New Zealand wanted the left side at the start and was able to win it, hitting the line two seconds after the gun, with Luna Rossa to windward, but seven seconds late. The Italians tacked immediately and within a few seconds, Team New Zealand followed them over to the right. When ITA 45 tacked back the Kiwis were ahead, but not far enough to cross on port; so they tacked on the lee bow of the Italian boat, which was forced to clear her air by going back to the right. This happened a second time, but on the third cross, Coutts and his tactician Brad Butterworth realized they had lost half a length and couldn't tack into a controlling position. So they laid off and swept behind Luna Rossa, and the Italians made no effort to go with them to protect the right side of the course
These two decisionsthe first by New Zealand and the second by Italywere the ones that dictated the rest of the race. Neither move was done with great confidence, the Kiwis admitting later that they really weren't sure the right side was better today. The Italians said that they were happy to get left because they were expecting the wind to swing in that direction. Luna Rossa accentuated the error by holding the starboard tack for several minutes, so that the boats were separated by more than 500 yards and the slight wind shift back to the right was accentuated by this distance shooting the Kiwis into a substantial lead.
After rounding the weather mark well behind, the Italians launched a spirited jibing duel in an attempt to gain back some real estate. Both crews demonstrated the efficiency of long months of training, as they handled the huge masthead asymmetrical spinnakers to perfection. However, despite all their efforts and the usual advantage of the trailing boat downwind, Luna Rossa was able to shave only six seconds off the Kiwi lead.
At the top of the second weather leg, the spoils went to the leader again when Team New Zealand rounded the mark and then watched the Italians struggle to work through a patch of very light air. Luna Rossa had to make two extra tacks in the near calm and trailed by a disheartening 1:39 at the turn.
It was on the final windward leg that the Italians made some inroads into the New Zealand lead, when they were able to take advantage of a 30-degree wind shift to gain 16-seconds. Nonetheless, they still trailed by 1:30 beginning the 3.2 mile run to the finish, and then watched as the highly professional and perfectly disciplined New Zealanders increased the yawning gap between the boats to win by 1:49.
At the press conference New Zealand navigator and design coordinator Tom Schnackenberg was asked to comment on KZL's performance in various wind conditions. He said, "we were pleased to sail today in light winds and find that the boat is competitive, so that answers the question that remained in our minds. If tomorrow's conditions are only moderate, then we could actually finish the regatta without really knowing how we would go against Luna Rossa in strong winds."
Schnackenberg, who is credited with being the intellect behind the overall excellence of the Team New Zealand effort, was expressing a thought that is almost laughable, as the design thrust of all the teams that have sailed in New Zealand since racing began last October, has been aimed at strong winds and rough seas. They all knew they would meet some light and confusing conditions along the way, but they also expected a lot of racing in 20 knots plus.
Veteran New Zealand tactician Brad Butterworth said the weather "was out of phase with the racing, and the most we've seen is 14 knots. That's been all right for us, but more wind would have been better for the sport."
The New Zealanders might get their weather wish tomorrow as the national meteorological service forecast is for winds from the southeast at 20 knots. Any fresh wind from the eastern sector on the Hauraki Gulf will produce steep, damaging seas, as the Gulf is open to the South Pacific Ocean in that direction. Although a race would likely be held in winds well above 20 knots if it was coming off the land to the west, (which would prevent wave build-up), the Race Committee might postpone a race if the southeasterly kicks up wave conditions they consider unsafe.