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.
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."
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."|
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.
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