It's stress control time in the Louis Vuitton Cup semifinals as breakdowns, careless mistakes, fouls and unexpected success has put extreme pressure on the six boats struggling to gain one of the two places in the finals which begin January 25.
After a minor breakdown in yesterday's race, the formerly top-rated Luna Rossa lost her mast today in moderate air while slightly behind America One on the first leg of the race. France's Le Defi looked very fast in the moderate wind, but incurred two easily avoided fouls in her race against Stars & Stripes and might have another penalty assessed by the International Jury for damaging the American boat.
Luna Rossa's 108 foot long, $700,000 carbon fiber mast, the victim of a broken spreader tip, shattered half way up and sagged over the port side. Within two hours of being towed back to the dock the mast was replaced and they were out testing the new rig. The Italian boat had been beaten at the start by Paul Cayard at the helm of America One, but had appeared very fast and had gained on the Americans to the point where they were almost even when the mast came tumbling down. America One continued on alone to pick up the one point for the victory. She now has two wins and one loss.
The French, looking for their first win of the series and sailing in the 10 to 15 knots of wind that might have helped her gain the victory, committed a foul before the start by entering the starting area seconds before the permitted time. They were then beaten off the line by Stars & Stripes and later in the race, having drawn virtually even with the series leader, they committed another foul, damaging the American boat in the process. Having incurred the pre-start foul the French boat had to do a penalty turn at some point during the race, but if they could inflict a penalty on their competitor they would be even on fouls and neither boat would have to do a turn.
It was in an effort to exonerate herself in this way that Le Defi took a chance on the approach to the first leeward mark. Coming in fast on starboard tack, with the American boat on port, French skipper Bertrand Pace collided with the stern of Stars & Stripes just forward of the transom. Both boats claimed they had been fouled and the on-water judges decided the French boat had not given Stars & Stripes room to keep clear.
The French then had a second penalty turn to do and the rules say that when a yacht draws a second foul it must do the turn immediately. In doing so Le Defi got both the spinnaker, which was coming down, and the jib, which was going up, wrapped around the headstay. By the time the sails were unsnarled they had lost three minutes and the California boat went on to win by 3:06.
It was the third straight win for Stars & Stripes and she continues to sit alone on top of the score card. However the big blue sloop suffered extensive damage to the "sugar scoop" transom, the stern of the boat that extends aft of the cockpit to fair out the aft overhang. Later the International Jury gave her 24 hours to make repairs, and also granted her a review at that time to see if more time would be needed. Her scheduled race against America True tomorrow will probably have to be re-scheduled at the end of the series.
In the third race of the day Japan's Asura showed excellent speed and crew confidence by soundly beating Dawn Riley's America True from the San Francisco Yacht Club. In the pre-start dance, Peter Gilmour at the helm of the Japanese boat had the upper hand at first, but his long-time friend and rival, John Cutler, turned the tactical situation around with 30 seconds to go and took America True off the line on starboard tack four seconds in the lead and with Asura on his windward quarter.
However, the Japanese boat appeared to be pointing marginally higher and was able to work out to windward of America True. For most of the leg they were fairly even, with the Gilmour protecting the right side of the course by using the starboard tack right of way to bounce the American boat back to the left every time they met. However, in the last third of the leg Asura found some extra speed and pointing ability and opened out to a 28-second lead by the time they rounded the first mark.
America True gained one length on the first downwind leg, but from there on it was all Japan, with Asura steadily pulling away to win by 1:32. The Japanese boat has now won two races and is looking more like the team that had the strong surge in Round Three to enter the semifinals second only to Luna Rossa. The San Francisco Yacht Club boat, on the other hand, has been beaten by Japan and Luna Rossa and has lost some of the glow that her bright yellow hull had reflected coming into the series.
Although it didn't matter in the end, the pre-start maneuvers in "the match of the day" between America One and Luna Rossa, witnessed an outstanding move by Paul Cayard at the helm of the American boat. He was trying desperately to shake off Italian helmsman Francesco de Angelis who had grabbed the advantage earlier and was trailing close astern of America One in an effort to force her away from the starting line.
With only 30 seconds to go Cayard sailed to windward of the committee boat and de Angelis cut astern of the anchored boat to cut America One off. Both boats were on port tack, so the Italians had the leeward boat right of way. But Cayard jibed very fast onto starboard and squeezed between the Italians and the committee boat to escape the trap and blast across the starting line at full speed with a seven second lead. The Italians protested the American boat for failing to keep clear, but the judges felt that Cayard had done his jibe in time and they waved off the protest
The scores: - Stars & Stripes 3-0, Asura 2-1, America One 2-1, Luna Rossa 1-2, America True 1-2, Le Defi 0-3.