The Louis Vuitton Cup (LVC) Finals began as a frustrating affair, both for the sailors and for international fans, but—fortunately—things are on the upswing. Racing commenced last Saturday (August 20), and from the first mark rounding it became clear that the fears about the fragility of the AC72 class were not unfounded. The first three races unfolded in three day’s time, with all three being decided by attrition, not tactics. Fortunately, Wednesday’s calmer winds allowed the Race Committee to complete two races, dispelling a pall that was beginning to hang over the LVC, made poignant by the fact that ten-year-olds sailing O’pen Bic dinghies could be seen heading out on Monday as the mighty AC72s were headed home.
In many ways, the first race of the LVC Finals—a best-of-thirteen affair—was a harbinger of the week’s tidings. Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) and Luna Rossa engaged in a pre-start tango, with ETNZ rounding the first mark some seven seconds ahead of their Italian-flagged rivals. But instead of pursuing the Kiwis, Luna Rossa was instead forced to abandon racing due to a mechanical meltdown. “A composite part of the lifting system broke,” said Max Sirena, Luna Rossa’s skipper, who explained that the team had recently made some modifications to this section of their boat in order to improve their aerodynamics profile. “We sailed five days with [the modification] and then today it broke. Luckily it broke during the reaching leg and not a gybe, otherwise it could’ve been another nosedive.”
ETNZ continued sailing the course uncontested (triggering bad flashbacks to the LVC Round Robin series from earlier this summer), locking-in what should have been a walk-away win, yet this point was almost robbed when the team rounded their third windward mark at full pace. ETNZ had just popped up on their hydrofoil when a blast of wind hit, plunging Aotearoa’s chisel-like bows into the water up to the first crossbeam, nearly causing the otherwise-unflappable Kiwis to capsize (and likely destroy) their second-generation AC72. Two burly ETNZ grinders, Chris Ward and Rob Waddell, were flung overboard (and immediately rescued by chase boats), but, fortunately, the team regained control of their mighty beast and finished the course shorthanded, earning the first point of the Finals.
The second race of the day was cancelled to winds exceeding the day’s 19.3-knot limit for an official start.
ETNZ was able to psychologically bounce back from their white-knuckle ride and again meet Luna Rossa on Sunday, thanks to outstanding overnight repair work by both teams’ shore crews. The Kiwis again proved why they are the team to beat in the LVC Finals, earning a 400-plus meter lead by the third leg when the Antipodean team dramatically dropped their speed due to a problem with their electrical system (which controls their onboard hydraulics). Luna Rossa kept sailing alone, earning a single point (their first “win” over ETNZ all summer) for their lonely efforts.
Again, the second race of the day was cancelled to winds exceeding the day’s wind limit for an official start.
While Monday was supposed to be a rest day, cancelled races on Saturday and Sunday forced the two teams back onto the water, where a familiar sequence unfolded, albeit with small twist. Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper earned a better start than Barker, and the two AC72 powered down the first leg neck-and-neck, giving spectators a glimpse of the sort of stunning racecourse action that they came to witness. Then, the Italians hit a lull, dropping their silver steed off its foils, allowing the Kiwis to roll by. Calamity struck Luna Rossa on the third leg, however, when a wingsail-control sheave was damaged. “We had an issue with the line controlling the twist profile of the wing and couldn’t keep sailing,” said Max Sirena, Luna Rossa’s skipper. “Fortunately it’s a quick fix, but unfortunately it stopped us racing.” ETNZ sailed the rest of the course unchallenged, earning their second point of the Finals.
And yet again, the second race of the day was cancelled to winds exceeding the day’s 19.4-knot limit for an official start.
Just as frustration levels were starting to get downright prickly, Wednesday delivered lower winds, making for postcard-perfect racing. ETNZ won the first start and immediately began building a considerable lead over Luna Rossa, who made an unforced error and had to execute a penalty turn. ETNZ ultimately crossed the finishing line two minutes and 17 seconds ahead of Luna Rossa, once again demonstrating flawless crew choreography. The day’s second race began with Luna Rossa beating ETNZ to the first mark, only to see the Kiwis roll the Italians at the beginning of the second leg and immediately snowball a sizeable lead. Throughout the race, ETNZ again demonstrated far superior speed and crisp boat handling, beating Luna Rossa over the finishing line by nearly 90 seconds.
As the score currently stands, Luna Rossa has a single point, versus four wins for ETNZ. Racing resumes on Friday, with ENTZ needing just three more wins to advance to the America’s Cup.
Meanwhile, things are not exactly smooth for Oracle Team USA, the Defenders of the 34th America’s Cup (AC34), who find themselves strangely embroiled in what should have been an easily avoided controversy over unauthorized modifications that were made to two of the team’s AC45 class catamarans, which were used to contest the America’s Cup World Series, and which will be sailed in the upcoming Red Bull Youth America’s Cup (September 1-4).
According to the latest reports, Oracle faces an unprecedented hearing by the International Jury. Specifically, the Defender is accused of violating Rule 69 of the International Sailing Federation’s Racing Rules of Sailing and Article 60 of the Protocol that governs the America’s Cup. The formal hearing is set for Monday, August 26 (just 12 days before Oracle is supposed to begin defending the AC34); depending on the outcome, Oracle Team USA (including its leadership) could potentially face serious complications at a time that was otherwise supposed to be a celebration of sailing and world-class competition.
Stay tuned to this space for more LVC and “AC34” news, including updates on Oracle’s current migraine headache, as it becomes known.
David Schmidt is a Seattle-based international yachting journalist, the Electronics Editor at Yachting Magazine and a lifelong sailor.