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Lessons from the AC Crowd

Recreational sailors ply the waters near Auckland, the City of Sails, where the prelude to next October's America's Cup is already underway.
Here in Auckland—the City of Sails—within half a year of the start of the Louis Vuitton Challenge Series for the 2003 America's Cup—the site of the long, narrow IACC boats heading out to sea turns few heads. All but one of the contending teams have been in operation here for months, and all but a few of these will be here throughout the remainder of the year until they either get eliminated from the competition. The sheds and docks within the Viaduct Basin are already full of support boats, equipment, shore teams, and sailing crews, and unless the wind is blowing over a steady 25 knots, an entourage of these groups parades out of the basin each morning, heading for the Haruaki Gulf, where the daily grind of speed testing progresses one milliknot at a time.

Since winning the America's Cup is mostly about speed, with flawless crew work and tactics taken as a given, there is tremendous emphasis placed on finding any advantage possible, whether it's in the sails, the rig, the hull shape, or the foils. While computer simulations have been invaluable aids in design, there is still no better method for evaluating reliability and speed than spending literally thousands of hours on the water in test after test after test.

Yet despite this overwhelming emphasis on pace, the competition for the America's Cup is still a match race, requiring superior skills for skipper and crew in this unique one-on-one form of the game. It's not sufficient just to survive the start—any pre-start advantage gained can yield valuable seconds for which those thousands of hours and millions of dollars have been spent pursuing.

So how do America's Cup teams hone their match-race skills? Some do intramural sparring to practice their moves, but most field a crew to sail events on the Swedish Match Tour, where they can meet their competitors on the field of battle before the stakes get raised quite a bit higher in Cup competition.

Match racing events like Auckland's Steinlager Line 7 Cup are crucial in helping America's Cup teams prepare for the ultimate action.
Here at the Steinlager Line 7 Cup—the first event of the year in the Swedish Match Tour—a dozen teams representing eight America's Cup syndicates (both would-be challengers and the defender) are competing. These teams are not only keen to garner a share of the $42,000 (New Zealand) prize money, but also to size up the skills of their competitors and their own crews. But even for professionals, the conditions here are challenging as the racers compete aboard 34-foot Farr-designed MRXs around a windward-leeward course less than a half mile in length. With peers applying pressure from aboard the opposing boats, there's also strong, two-knot current to contend with, not to mention shifty winds spilling off the Auckland cityfront. It's no cakewalk.

Ken Read, skipper of Dennis Connor's Stars & Stripes challenge team, underscored the difficulty of the competition by saying "This is like being in sailing school. This is totally different than sailing in IACC boats, and I've not sailed on any boat with a tiller in a year and a half, much less in two knots of current!" Read's tactician and mainsheet trimmer Terry Hutchinson, an accomplished match race sailor in his own right, echoed the difficulty by saying the pre-start action "is so intense, I really haven't had any time to look around and help much on tactics. But we're getting better at it, and our teamwork is still solid." Completing their team's quintet, Read and Hutchinson had Andrew Scott and Morgan Trubovich trimming the sails and Greg Gendell on the bow.

Just as many of the Auckland-based teams have been chartering MRXs for their intramural competitions, the Stars & Stripes team (based in Long Beach, CA) has also been honing its match-race skills by sparring in the wheel-driven Catalina 37s made available to them by the Long Beach Yacht Club. Read says the experience, though clearly frustrating at times, has been valuable. "We look at this as an excellent opportunity to test our match-race skills."

The recent America's Cup fleet race was a mixed preview of the action to come next fall. Here the Swedish team shadows Team New Zealand (far right) and the new Italian syndicate Mascalzone Latino (foreground).
Another US skipper in the competition, Ed Baird, who isn't affiliated with any Cup effort at the moment, made it through an intense qualifying round among 10 teams competing a week earlier. Baird and his Kiwi crew felt a little more at home in the boats after that experience, but he nonetheless had little compassion for those who complained about the lack of racing in their recent schedules: "I haven't been able to do any steering since the Bermuda Gold Cup [last October], so I have little sympathy for all those guys who've been out every day sailing."

Besides the opportunity for sizing up the international competition, there's also a subtext of intrasquad rivalries here. Both Rod Davis and Gavin Brady fielded teams representing Italy's Prada syndicate, and Andy Green and Ian Walker each brought a crew from the British GBR Challenge. These sailors and most of the other America's Cup teams in attendance have rules advisors and coaches on hand to observe the competition from an armada of logo-emblazoned coach boats. They also attend the nightly rules debriefing sessions with the umpires, though they have strict instructions from chief umpire John Doerr to stay off the racecourse. This is another important value of the Steinlager/Line 7 Cup because many of the umpires officiating here will be umpiring in the Louis Vuitton Series, and some in the America's Cup itself, so gaining a familiarity with their interpretations of the rules may prove invaluable.

"Many of the umpires officiating here will be umpiring in the America's Cup, so gaining a familiarity with their interpretations of the rules could prove invaluable."
One team here is regarded as an underdog. Having only one new boat and one Auckland-based trial horse, the "other" Italian syndicate—Vincenzo Onorato's Mascalzone Latino crew—has acquited itself respectably. Despite only one year on the match-racing scene, skipper Paolo Cian has done remarkably well, finishing among the leaders in the qualifying round at this event. Even with help from tactician Flavio Favini, the newly crowned Melges 24 World Champion, Cian has also been struggling with the competitive challenges at he Steinlager/Line 7 Cup. "The tide here is like a river," said Cian, "and the time and distance we must work on in the starts." With the strong ebb current, winning the pin end has been an important key to success, but gauging the layline and time towards the line proved tough for some teams.

Perhaps the strongest indication regarding the competitive caliber of the field and the demanding nature of the conditions could be read in the remarks of Dean Barker, whose hometown crew from Team New Zealand were unable to make the cut for the Quarter Final Round. Barker has been a perennial winner in Grade One events on the Swedish Match Tour, but his focus on the Cup defense efforts may have diminished his small-boat prowess. "Sometimes you just have a bad regatta, and unfortunately it's been that way for us this time," said the soft-spoken Kiwi. "But I think we can pull it together when it will really count."

Despite thousands of spectators on hand at the Auckland waterfront, the wind failed to cooperate on the final day of competition and there was no racing. In the end, the winning team was one of the most practiced and well-funded of all the Cup syndicates in town. Peter Holmberg, originally from the US Virgin Islands, and his Kiwi crew of John Cutler, Robbie Naismith, Mike Sanderson and Brad Webb from Oracle Racing were declared the winners based on their win-loss record in the previous rounds. Commenting about the event Holmberg said, "It's the Steinlager/Line 7 man, it's a big one, and this year you'd have to say the field was probably the biggest I've ever seen here, and we're really proud to have pulled this one off." This is the second consecutive Swedish Match Tour event that Holmberg has won, having picked up the Bermuda Gold Cup in October last year, and he has now moved to the top of the Tour leaderboard.

The next Swedish Match Tour event will be in Long Beach at the venerable Congressional Cup, which has recently replaced the Australia Cup for this year's sixth match race event on the Tour. Just as Holmberg and crew were in in their 'home' waters in Auckland, maybe Ken Read and the Stars & Stripes team will have a chance to 'school' the other teams next month in Long Beach. Wait and see.

Suggested Reading:

Adapting from the Match Race Crowd by Dean Brenner

So You Want to be a Match Racer by Dobbs Davis

Success at the Swedish Match Cup by Dobbs Davis

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