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America's Cup: Match Day 5 - Kiwis come away with two wins in controversial race

by Ben Gladwell - Sail-World NZL 15 Mar 17:06 NZDT
Emirates Team New Zealand showing pace on Day 4 of the 36th Americas Cup. © America's Cup Media

After no racing yesterday due to a lack of breeze, today the racing was conducted on Course E, in an area dominated by surrounding landmasses, and with the spectator fleet positioned upwind of the race course and top mark.

Race 7

Luna Rossa would enter from port in far more lively conditions than we have seen the last few days, both boats cracking the 45 knot mark as they bear away into the start box. New Zealand elected to lead back with Luna Rossa pushing up to windward of them.

Team New Zealand looked to have lead back slightly early and passed the committee boat end of the line in a very weak position with 20 seconds to kill, while Luna Rossa hung up to windward leaving themselves time to accelerate and power over the top. ETNZ did well to mitigate what could have been a complete disaster of a start and got away at a reasonable pace but still 7 knots slower than their opponent. They were too far too leeward of Luna Rossa to be able to pinch up into the lee-bow position and create some disturbed air for their adversaries. Luna Rossa put the bow down and reached over the top of NZ and took them all the way to the boundary. When they tacked, ETNZ was able to get slightly above the Italians’ course and into clean air, but Spithill and Bruni pushed into a high mode and made ETNZ try to follow suit.

The vicious high mode of Luna Rossa put the hurt on ETNZ and they were bleeding metres for the short time that they tried to match. ETNZ eventually bailed out and went back to the boundary. Once they got a little bit clear of Luna Rossa’s wind shadow, they showed some real speed, shutting the Italian’s lead down to inside 70 metres. There was a clear difference between the speeds of the boats in these conditions.

As they reached the top of the course, Luna Rossa took the Kiwis all the way to the layline, but the Kiwi crew were able to continue a little further on before completing the final tack. The Kiwis would round the mark just 8 seconds back. As usual the distance between the boats would grow while the leader accelerated downwind and the trailing boat continued upwind.

Once they had got through the bear away, the Kiwi boat again showed their downwind prowess, ticking off the metres of the Italian’s lead. Pulling them back to within 100 metres at times. Luna Rossa bravely let ETNZ have a wide split course on the first downwind but seemed to make good gains from that strategy in the lower half of the course, eventually rounding the bottom mark 10 seconds ahead. ETNZ immediately headed to the right-hand side of the course where there seemed to be more pressure. Italy would follow them but too late and the Kiwis made good gains, sneaking their bow in front. The lead change would not be consolidated until the boats cross courses in the middle of the course. In preparation, ETNZ, coming from the right-hand boundary and with right of way, put their bow down and accelerated in preparation for Luna Rossa tacking to leeward of them. Once the Italians tacked, Peter Burling and crew spent some of their excess speed and put the bow up to get some distance between their course and that of Luna Rossa as the latter completed their tack and got going. It was a well-executed move by the Kiwis and they easily rolled over the top of the Italian crew, confirming the first lead change of this regatta. It only took 6 races.

Now that the Kiwis were ahead, the difference in boat speeds would become far more telling. Team NZ did some great shepherding and course management of their opponents, getting both boats set up on a long port tack towards the right side of the course where the breeze was clearly strongest. So Luna Rossa would have no choice but to follow behind them or sail to the unfavoured side of the race track. The result was that Team NZ would continue to draw away, sailing with - at times - in excess of 3 knots better VMG. They would round the mark 19 seconds in front.

As the boats tore downwind, speeds hovering around the 40-knot mark, again ETNZ would hold their VMG more 2-3 knots better than the Italian crew. The big difference between the boats today seemed to be the size of their headsails - ETNZ’s j2 vs Luna Rossa’s j1. The smaller sail seemed to be more efficient once they got up to speed as they were dragging less sail through the air. Luna Rossa would round the bottom mark 29 seconds back.

The lead of ETNZ would continue to grow as they headed towards the left of the course after the mark and set up for a very long port tack where they made a lot of their gains on the previous leg. As they rounded the final mark with 48 seconds between them, the boats could nearly lay all the way to the finish without gybing, a situation that would suit ETNZ happily as it effectively removed any chance of passing and their lead grew to almost 1000m. ETNZ took Race 7 by 58 seconds to go up 4-3.

Race 8 will show whether this delta was a case of the wrong choice of sail for Luna Rossa or if this is the Kiwi’s lauded massive speed advantage coming to fruition.

Race 8

For race 8 the breeze had moderated slightly down to around 8-10 knots from the 10-12 in the previous race. Both boats had changed jib to compensate. ETNZ entered the start box on port and elected to gybe right on the outer limit. They would set up slightly to windward of Luna Rossa as the Italians lead back to the start. ETNZ looked to have their time on distance well sorted but Luna Rossa was also placed in a strong position, ahead and to leeward. The boats would start in a similar orientation to the previous race however this time ETNZ was more separated to windward.

Once again, Luna Rossa put the boat into high mode and started crabbing upwind towards ETNZ’s course. Before they could cast any sort of wind shadow, Burling and the ETNZ afterguard took the decision to tack away and head for the right hand boundary. On the Virtual Eye, Luna Rossa held a slight advantage however the leader would not be solidified until the boats would cross in the middle of the course. As they approached the right hand boundary, ETNZ was again holding a VMG advantage of 2-3 knots over Luna Rossa who was heading for the same boundary. When the boats eventually crossed paths, Luna Rossa was 70 metres in front but declined the opportunity to tack on top of ETNZ – perhaps feeling that 70 metres was not enough of a buffer in the event that they couldn’t complete a perfect tack.

Further up the beat, when the boats came together for the second time, Luna Rossa would choose to tack on top of ETNZ and were able to stretch their lead out to around 180 metres when the lead boat set up on their layline to the first top mark. ETNZ would follow around the top mark 16 seconds adrift.

Luna Rossa had a particularly ordinary first gybe of the race, failing to get the jib trimmed on and almost splashed down – a mistake that could have cost them the lead. The issue didn’t resolve itself, it’s likely that they had an issue with the winch or the sheet. ETNZ looked set to roll over the top of Luna Rossa but tried to force the issue and botched a gybe of their own and slipped off the foils. A deficit of 70 metres quickly became 3000 metres and likely ended the race.

The Kiwi crew’s only hope was that the same fate might befall Luna Rossa in the light air at the top of the course. And so it was for Italy at their lay-line tack. For them the situation was initially slightly less dire than for ETNZ as they were sailing upwind with more breeze across their sails than if they were sailing downwind as were ETNZ. Emirates Team New Zealand fans’ could breathe again. Luna Rossa were not able to accelerate and resume foiling before they reached the boundary so had to gybe in displacement mode which effectively killed any speed they had generated and had to begin the challenge of getting foiling again from scratch. Meanwhile, ETNZ was coming into the top mark at pace.

As the Kiwis approached the top mark, the race committee radioed in to inform the crews that the race would be shortened to 2.5 laps – therefore the race would finish at the next top gate with an upwind finish.

With 100 metres to go to the mark, Team NZ went for their final tack – the one which would decide the race – it was a good one. They nicely made it around the top mark, some 4:27 after Luna Rossa, though the Italians still hadn’t turned downwind yet. The advantage began swinging back New Zealand’s way as they completed their bear away and first gybe and could finally set their sights on the bottom mark. Sailing some enormous angles, ETNZ completed a couple of rather ropey gybes in the light air at the top of the course - it would get more stable and therefore completing manoeuvres would get easier as they got closer do the bottom.

In an attempt to get foiling, Luna Rossa intentionally committed a penalty and sailed right off the course rather than gybe and burn off all the speed they had gathered. They would get foiling and gybe back and re-enter the racecourse area. Once at foiling speeds again they seemed to be comfortable keeping the boat flying – albeit 2,000m behind.

Emirates Team New Zealand’s “one and in” call before the final layline tack prompted Kiwi fans to hold their breath. The nation’s collective exhale came as the red and black boat foiled through it’s final manoeuvre and crossed the finish line to take two points and go up 5-3.

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