Yachting: Full-on action - even without a race

By Dana Johannsen

Controversy, tragedy and brinkmanship have surrounded the players in the America's Cup so far _ and that's before these special, flying giants and their brave crews get out on San Francisco Bay for a decent showdown

The first two weeks of the America's Cup have had it all. Well ... except for a boat race to speak of.

Some things never change

The furore over the rudder regulations that erupted on the eve of racing created a farcical opening to the 34th America's Cup.

With one team refusing to race until the international jury had ruled over attempts by the regatta director to railroad through rule changes that would favour the defenders; another team saying that they can't race unless those changes were pushed through; and a regatta director saying there won't be an event at all if his rules aren't upheld, an incredulous public were left shaking their head at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

But long-time Cup observers simply shrugged their shoulders and pointed to the event's long history of acrimonious battles. The America's Cup has always been brimful with controversy. John Bertrand, who skippered Australia II to victory in the 1983 event to break 132 years of American domination, said the bickering and feuding that had this year's event straining to reach the startline is all part of the Cup's DNA.

"There's no change, this is the world of America's Cup. It is controversial, and it has been controversial for over 160 years of competition," Bertrand said.

Artemis are in worse shape than we thought

You have to feel for Artemis. After their horror training accident in May, which left crewman Andrew Simpson dead, they have been working around the clock just to get a boat on the water so they can play some part in the event.

They've already given up on the idea of being competitive, with skipper Iain Percy telling media in the press call before the Louis Vuitton Cup started that they are simply aiming to get on the water so they can support the event.

The Swedish team indicated last month they would not be ready to compete in the Louis Vuitton round robin, but were planning to join in the action come the semifinals. With only three challengers entered in the Cup, Artemis are still able to compete in the knock-out stages of the regatta without having to take part in the earlier rounds. But it is no certainty that Artemis will be ready for the semifinals.

They had originally targeted the first week of July as a launch date for their second boat, but having only just completed the load testing this week, Artemis are still about a week off getting their boat wet. That will leave them with just 10 days to learn how to sail the highly complex foiling catamarans and get race ready for the semifinals. After the tragedy the team have been through, safety is their singlemost concern and they will not be prepared to race if the team, or the boat, is not up to it.

The boats are pretty special

The speed potential of the high-powered AC72 catamarans had long been talked about in the lead-up to the America's Cup. We'd all heard the speculation these boats were capable of sailing up to 40 knots, but the reality of those speeds didn't really hit home until you saw the umpire boat, powered by 400 horsepower engines, struggling to keep up with Team New Zealand in their first solo jaunt around the course. Emirates Team NZ hit a top speed of 42.8 knots (78km/h) in their opening sail - unprecedented speeds for the America's Cup.

But it has been the manoeuvrability of the boats that has surprised everyone.

When the wingsailed catamarans were first unveiled as the boats in which the Cup would be contested, it was thought the racing would be a pure drag race - the boats would split off on different sides of the course and there would be no close-quarters action. But the way Team NZ are throwing their boat around the race course in their early outings, it looks like they are ready to match race - they just need an opponent to engage with.

Team New Zealand are looking pretty sharp

Given the complexity of the AC72 design project coupled with the short lead-in time to this year's regattas, most of the teams fell way behind with their sailing programmes. Team NZ, however, managed to hit every one of their projected dates with the design and construction of their two boats, allowing the team maximum sailing time to get to grips with the new technology. The benefit of that has been obvious on San Francisco Bay in the opening two weeks, with the Kiwi team impressing with their slick crew work.

Since it was obvious these boats could foil, it is believed the key to winning the Cup will be the ability of the teams to get the boats around the tight San Francisco Bay course without losing any speed on their manoeuvres. Team NZ have shown they are capable of pulling off foil-to-foil gybes, or flybing as it has been termed, consistently - rarely dropping below 28 knots on their gybes. It takes precision timing and co-ordinated team effort to effect such a difficult manoeuvre and the other teams have been closely studying the choreography of Team New Zealand.

Oracle are looking smarmy

The only team who seemed to enjoy the bickering and brinkmanship that erupted on the eve of the Louis Vuitton Challenger series were Oracle. As the debate over the proposed alterations to the rudder regulations got more and more heated, Oracle just sat back and enjoyed the show, knowing while their rivals were busy developing their arguments for a jury hearing, they weren't focusing on on-water developments.

While the jury's decision was not the outcome they had hoped for, given Oracle don't have to present their race boat until September, they have the time and resources to come up with a solution to their foiling problems. The Cup defenders are the only team to be getting any decent racing in during the Louis Vuitton challenger series, with their two-boat testing programme giving them a competitive build-up to the America's Cup, while their rivals are more often than not left to go it alone around the course.

- NZ Herald

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