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America's Cup Rialto: February 3 - Prada Cup - youngest team is first to exit

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ 3 Feb 18:28 NZDT 2 February 2021
American Magic - Patriot - Waitemata Harbour - January 30, 2021 - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

The exit of any team from the Challenger Selection Series is always a sad occasion.

No longer will we hear their anthems as they leave the dock, or see the crowds of team-uniformed, flag waving, families, friends and fans, bidding the crews farewell and unconditionally welcoming them back at the end of each race day.

New York Yacht Club's team American Magic are the first to exit from the Prada Cup. The race schedule called for one team to exit the 36th America's Cup about now. The teams like to assume that someone else will be the first to be excused.

American Magic became the series underdog after their capsize and near-sinking two weeks earlier. Their plucky performance, and the way they played in a very tough game, twanged the Kiwi fans heartstrings, making American Magic's departure on Saturday, even more poignant.

In a full-blown America's Cup regatta, all but four of the teams would exit before the Semi-Finals, and when that phase had ended, two more would go. It's unusual for a single team to exit alone, as is the lot of New York Yacht Club.

In Fremantle, nine of the 13 challengers exited after three months of Round Robin. Some were effectively out before that time, as they needed more wins to progress than there were available races left.

Fast forward 34 years to from Fremantle to Auckland in 2021, there are only three challengers. All are so-called "super teams", well funded and managed.

Any would have made a worthy Challenger, in 2021 or any previous Cup.

The loss of the first team was always going to a wrench. The loss of the second in another three weeks will also be hard-felt, but maybe less so. American Magic's period of off-stage solitude will be over.

Maybe it is not such a surprise, that New York Yacht Club's team should be the first to exit.

American Magic are a startup team in their first America's Cup. The team's name is an amalgam of the first winner of the trophy, the schooner America, and the first defender Magic, in 1871,

The New York Yacht club last raced in the America's Cup in 2003 in Auckland and was represented by Team Dennis Conner.

Mr America's Cup ran his own show, based in San Diego and somewhat independent of the 2000nm distant Club his team represented. In the previous 2000 Cup, Conner's team flew the burgee of nearby San Diego based Cortez Racing Association.

In the 2000 event, New York was represented by the Young America team, skippered by Ed Baird. He went on the sail Alinghi (SUI) to a successful defence of the America's Cup in 2007.

It's a big ask to sit out four America's Cup cycles and then re-enter against two other well-funded challenger teams that have been together in one form for another since 1997 and 2008. That is not to say that a new team cannot put up a good showing, in its first Cup. American Magic have certainly done that.

Of the two teams left in the 2021 Prada Cup, Luna Rossa competed in the 2000 America's Cup Match, in Auckland, which was its best result to date. They had a solid run to the Challenger Semi-finals in 2003 and Finals in 2007. In 2013 they were a late entry. Although they didn't physically compete in 2017, the team was the first to gear up to full strength after the 2013 Cup.

In March 2015, Luna Rossa pulled the pin on their campaign following the switch of class from the restricted AC62 to the one-design AC50, nine months after entries had opened. Luna Rossa was well-advanced in its 2017 campaign, and the late class switch, after a 3-2 vote completely wiped out several years of hard work, and their competitive advantage over the teams that were late to start up and favoured moving to a largely one-design class.

But Luna Rossa did support Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2017 Cup, with several team members, to ensure the Italians were current, and in a good position to go again for 2021.

The other Prada Cup finalist INEOS Team UK, evolved from the 2017 Challenger Land Rover BAR, begat of Team Origin which was formed in 2008. That effort was but put on ice with the home Olympics in the UK in 2012, and so many of the team involved.

Again the Brits had a base infrastructure from which to start, and while they made plenty of mistakes in the 2017 America's Cup, they learned from them, and emerged much the stronger from the Bermuda experience.

New York YC has been less successful as a Challenger than it was as Defender - holding the America's Cup for 132 years - the longest winning stretch in sporting history. Since losing the Cup in 1983, New York has never made a Challenger Final, for either the Louis Vuitton Cup/Trophy, or now the Prada Cup. (There were no US Trials conducted for the defence of the 2013 and 2017 Cups, and NYYC was excluded.)

Key goals achieved in first year

As a start up American Magic achieved some big goals in their first year, including building or doing the tooling for three boats - a Maxi 72, their test boat, "The Mule" and design work and some tooling for their first AC75, Defiant. Plus recruiting and managing a team, along with setting its culture. Tthe team now have two bases - one in Bristol, RI and the winter one in Pensacola, Fl, plus a build facility in Bristol RI.

Moving forward, the New York Yacht Club must ask itself whether it wants to be an active competitor in future America's Cup, or if they are happy to be remembered as being part of the Cup's colourful history. If New York wants to be part of the Cup's future, they currently have an excellent base for launching a renewed campaign with their team American Magic.

If New York doesn't move quickly, that infrastructure will be rapidly devoured by new teams, coming into challenge for the next Cup - knowing that since 1983, no team has ever successfully defended the Cup twice, or against a first time Defender if things don't go the Kiwis way in the next five weeks.

New York YC has days, maybe a few weeks, but certainly not months to make a commitment to the next Cup. They need only to look at Team New Zealand's post 2000 defence experience to realise how quickly the poachers make calls, offers get made and pragmatically accepted. Loyalty is fine, but even pro-sailors and support crew have mortgages to pay.

If they go again, New York YC has to be tolerant of other US challenges, notably from the West Coast. Previous Cups have attracted multiple US challengers. The USA would have been better to have had with two teams in this regatta.

It took Team New Zealand three challenges to win the Cup, and it is maybe no coincidence that there were two New Zealand teams in the Challenger Semi-Final in San Diego in 1992. That effectively doubled the New Zealand talent pool in one Cup cycle - providing a good base for 1995. While New Zealand could run two AC teams - it could not fund them. The second NZ team was internationally sponsored. In Fremantle there were six US Challengers, five in Auckland in 2000, and just three at Auckland in 2003, and one in Valencia in 2007.

The other issue confronting any US America's Cup team is the USA's cute Olympic program and lack of medals won.

Amongst other functions, the US Olympic program needs to be a production line for developing talent that can go into America's Cup teams and other professional sailing projects. The US Olympic program must be more successful and medal-winning than has been the case for several Olympiads.

In turn, the stardust generated from the high profile AC teams inspires young sailors, as it has done in other countries, to get involved take up the career opportunities that should be there in both the sport and marine industry. Both the current America's Cup defender (NZ) and likely challenger (UK) have strong links with their Olympic teams - and it works for everyone. For US sailing the gain is that the next foiling generation gets pulled into the sport.

Was top Challenger in December

Last week's events are the end game playing out that started in the America's Cup World Series in mid-December.

After the three-day AC World Series, New York YC's American Magic was clearly the top challenger. They were the only team to have beaten the defending champions after ETNZ had a pre-start snafu, got away late and finally caught the US team at the start of the final leg. Patriot had the speed and tactical nous to beat the kiwis -winning by 12 seconds.

Fast forward a month into the first weekend of Round Robin racing, and INEOS Team UK had gone from being a feather duster to a rooster. They emerged with four wins from four races. Barring their capsize American Magic would have finished on a single point, and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli would also have had just a single point.

The capsize and flooding of Patriot, although the result of a series of coincidental events, was the death-knell for the team's 2021 America's Cup campaign.

On the final mark of Round Robin 2 on January 17, it was a compelling image to see the American Magic afterguard standing in waist-deep water, holding onto the capsized AC75 at around 6.30 pm a dark evening while Luna Rossa sailed by in a 20kt plus rain squall.

Had they not been holed and flooded, and instead done a regulation capsize, Patriot could likely have been righted in a couple of minutes, as ETNZ's Te Rehutai had taken a week earlier on January 11 after flipping in a special practice session off Eastern Beach.

At the final Semi-Finals media conference, on January 30, Patriot's skipper Terry Hutchinson commented that even while waist-deep in water, waiting for the holed AC75 to be righted, he never doubted that they would get back racing. "There was never a question of whether we were going to go racing again, " he said at the media conference.

"I think we came up against a team that had made a step on, and that obviously made our jobs a lot harder. All we can do is say congratulations and well done, and move on from there."

Ironically the team which lost five months sailing time due to COVID-19, probably were about five sailing days short of being where they had to be to compete properly in the Semi-Finals.

A rebuilt Patriot was launched, on January 27, just two days before the start of the semi-final. The breeze was light most of the first day and didn't come in until the late afternoon.

Patriot was struggling to get foiling at times. Breeze or boat - we'll never know. There were the inevitable electronic gremlins - although not a lot - and the shore team had done an excellent job, given the circumstances.

The breeze was mid-range the following day. While Patriot had stepped up overnight, there were still issues.

And then the team plunged into Semi-Final racing.

Short duration Selection Series

A top of the range breeze greeted the Semi-Finalists for the first races of the Semi-Finals on January 29. Not ideal conditions for a first race in a rebuilt boat.

Patriot had foiling issues during the first pre-start, and these continued through the two days of racing. Another week and the electronic gremlins would indeed have been eradicated, and Patriot would surely have been back to being the boat we were more used to seeing - one that was relatively forgiving and could be driven hard.

AC75 speed development seems to be a game of leapfrog - where one team can make some less than obvious changes and pick up a significant improvement. Luna Rossa had clearly done this in the week in which American Magic's primary focus was on getting back into the regatta.

With just four sailing days over seven calendar days, the Round Robin Qualification regatta format would always work against any team that suffered a severe incident, during or before the series. There was no catch-up time. Even the ability to call a 15 minute time-out for gear failure three minutes before a race start was not permitted for the Semi-Finals.

The strength of the New York Yacht Club Defence Trials system was that it was subjective. Their America's Cup Committee Selections Committee, comprised of the elder statesmen of the club, who did whatever was necessary to keep a sharp edge on the defence trials, until there was only one that had not been excused from consideration. There was none of the current nonsense of a mandatory DSQ for two, non-performance affecting, measurement infringements. Like the AC75, the Int 12 Metre used as the America's Cup class and sailed from 1956 to 1987 was also to a restricted class rule, with plenty of scope for design innovation.

Compare the four days of Round Robin racing in the 2021 Prada Cup to 1986/87 Louis Vuitton Cup in Fremantle, where the Round Robin Qualification phase spread over three months - October, November and December. After that, the top four challengers progressed into Semi-Finals and Final series, both series were of similar duration to Auckland in the Prada Cup.

There were 13 Challengers in Fremantle and four Defence teams with six boats. The Challengers had 35 race days, and the Defenders 31 race days, with each team racing once per day off Gage Roads, Fremantle.

For the Defenders, in the 1987 Cup trials, there were nine days in the Semi-Finals and six in the Finals.

The simple point is that the much longer Challenger series duration, in Fremantle, made it more tolerant of the circumstance that befell American Magic. The compressed system in Auckland very unforgiving, particularly in an AC75 that has only been racing for just over a month. After just six days of selection trials racing, a challenger that topped the three day World series a month before was excused from further participation in the Prada Cup.

Last time the Cup was in Auckland, the Challenger Semi finals started 12 weeks after the start of the two Round Robins and Quarter Finals. The same phase was spread over 10 weeks in Auckland in 2003. The leadup to the Semi-finals of the Prada Cup regatta in Auckland, lasts just one and a half weeks elapsed.

It must be remembered that the purpose of the Challenger Selection Series is to produce the strongest possible challenger - not the last standing survivor.

An expensive game

Given the AC75 performance changes we have seen over the past six weeks, and the complete reversal of form from the start of the ACWS to the end of the Semi-Finals, it is quite likely that had the Qualification phase been extended for another four weeks that there would have been quite a different performance from a fully functional American Magic.

In San Francisco, at the end of the Louis Vuitton Round Robins, it was calculated that the first eliminated AC72, Artemis Racing had spent $1million per racing minute. By our calculations, American Magic has spent about $285,000 per racing minute spread over just six race days in the Prada Cup.

American Magic does of course offset that "dollars per racing minute" statistic with their whole program's output via their PR team over three years, including the release of the first video of their development boat's nosedive while training.

The short duration Prada Cup phases underscore the need for teams, and the America's Cup, to be much more open with the media and fans to get the best possible sponsor and backer return on their investment, notwithstanding the constraints imposed by COVID.

The elephant in the American Magic room is of course helmsman Dean Barker and to a lesser extent Executive Director Terry Hutchinson.

There is little doubt that anyone else could have done a better job. There's only a handful of helms with big boat crew management experience, high performance foiler racing and making the contribution expected of a key person in a test program. Barker is a member of that elite group.

The sideline experts all have it that Barker doesn't win enough starts, and then rattle off some statistic from lead-mine days about 85% of the races being won by the skipper who wins the start.

The same question has been asked at AC75 media conferences about whether it is better to win the start and use match racing tactics to maintain a cover, than focus on having better boatspeed. Always the answer from the skippers is the same - a faster boat is always a better weapon than the best start.

The situation is magnified by the AC75 where a knot or two of wind pressure hitting a boat which sails at three or for times windspeed quickly gets turned into 6-8kts of boatspeed. As we saw in Bermuda, boat positioning on the course for slightly increased pressure and advantageous direction is often more important than the start.

A statistic from the Challenger Final in Bermuda has it that Artemis Racing won more marks than Emirates Team New Zealand. However the marks that the Kiwis won were all at the end of the race, and translated into points on the leaderboard.

Another factor with the AC75 particularly sailing the first leg of the course to windward is that the lead boat gets the first sniff of any new breeze/pressure coming down the course and extends on the trailing boat. Of course, the reverse applies downwind, but the magnification of the advantage never seems to be the same. But give a faster boat a glimpse of a passing lane, plus some skillful crew-work and there will usually be a lead change.

The big plus of the Stadium course centred around North Head is that the funky breeze will often open up the passing lanes, as happened in the Round Robin series final race when there were nine lead changes. INEOS Team UK only won that eighth Round Robin race after a controversial protest call that was green flagged by the umpires.

The next team will be eliminated from the 36th America's Cup in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime the two "if only" questions about which American Magic should be pondering are the circumstances of the capsize, and the effects on this Cup created by the COVID pandemic, which weren't the same for every team. With five months off the water, the US team suffered more than any other. Getting back just five days of those five months would have been very handy.

The New York Yacht Club should be very proud of what its team, American Magic has achieved, the way it conducted itself, and the obstacles it has overcome.

Having done the hard yards, it is now over to the Club as to whether it sees itself as being a competitor in future America's Cup, or if its role will be purely curatorial.

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