The coming "ghost racing" in the Prada Cup will add weight to those calling for a less expensive and less complex class of yachts in the next America's Cup.
The foiling era – while indisputably showcasing an absorbing and at times thrilling class of yachts – has just as indisputably resulted in far fewer challengers. The vast cost of these yachts (Ineos Team UK has spent a reported $200m-plus) and the need to get expert design and engineering minds around the physics behind them means many potential challengers decide to pass.
At the America's Cups of 2000 and 2003 (in New Zealand) and 2007 (Valencia), there were 11, nine and 11 challengers. In 2013 (San Francisco, the first foiling Cup), there were three, five in 2017 in Bermuda and three this year in Auckland.
If there are no mishaps, the regatta can get away with a small pool of challengers. But these boats race so close to the edge that major misfortune is not uncommon – like Artemis' AC75 catamaran capsize in 2013, resulting in the death of crewman Andrew Simpson. In 2017, Sir Ben Ainslie's Landrover BAR team accidentally rammed Team NZ and later, all by themselves, TNZ capsized their AC50 catamaran.
In 2013 and 2021 one of the three challengers has been invalided out of the round robin racing after a bad crash, leading to the unedifying spectacle of one-boat racing.
In 2013, Sweden's Artemis returned only for the semifinals – where they predictably lost 4-0 to Luna Rossa after rebuilding their boat but having little time to develop speed and the ability to sail it better. This year American Magic, their hull badly holed, are also aiming to make it back for the Prada Cup semifinals.
While this weekend will see Luna Rossa and Ineos Team UK racing, the dreaded one-boat races will later appear once again. If American Magic can't make it to the start line, their opposition have to cross that same line to gain the point they need to advance.
In San Francisco in 2013, the regatta was nine days old before we saw anything other than a one-boat race, thanks to Artemis' absence. In those days, the single challenger had to sail for 10 minutes before gaining the point – though most did the whole course in the name of finding more speed and better boat handling. The same may happen this time.
All the speed and drama of the AC75s has been hiding the fact there are few challengers but now, even though there won't be as much of it as in San Francisco, single-boat racing will likely be greeted with shrugs that could be measured on the Richter scale; TV sets across the globe could be switched off or to Friends reruns.
No one wants to lose the speed and drama of the foilers but there has to be a way the America's Cup can attract more challengers to take up such slack in the schedule. It would bring more viewers, visitors and superyachts from other countries (in a normal world). In 2000, for example, there were yachts representing Italy, USA (multiple entries), France, Spain, Switzerland, Australia and Japan.
The Cup is still a mighty event and the foilers are terrific to watch when conditions, sailing skill and engineering allow close racing. But a dearth of challengers negates all that, especially when one is in the shed.
That said, events this year have once again thrown the spotlight on the dichotomy of sportsmanship and self-interest that is the America's Cup. As the Herald's Secret Sailor alluded to this week, there are strong rumours TNZ were a helping hand behind Ineos Team UK's startling reversal of form.
In Bermuda, it was Ainslie's team who helped Team NZ after they rammed them and, more particularly, after capsize. Such things are not forgotten.
In San Francisco, it was TNZ who helped Artemis back to the starting line. You can bet all possible efforts are being made to help American Magic too – and not just because more challengers are better for this regatta. The yachties all know each other; they meet and compete regularly on world circuits. There is a sense of unity outside the national boundaries and the America's Cup bickering.
There was, for example, not much profit for Team NZ in helping Artemis in 2013. Oracle were running the regatta and the feeling between the two camps was so toxic that sticking a lit match in the ear of the other would almost have been regarded as an act of kindness.
So while all this help and sportsmanship is commendable, there is still the lingering feeling that next time it would be good (if Team NZ prevail), to have a Cup regatta that does not involve single-boat racing – and which may require less government funding.
Quite how that can be balanced between the need for speed and ascending technology that is the America's Cup is yet to be seen.
Heading into the Cup racing?
• Give yourself plenty of time and think about catching a ferry, train or bus to watch the Cup.
• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It's the best way to ride.
• Don't forget to scan QR codes with the NZ COVID Tracer app when on public transport and entering the America's Cup Village.
• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup.