Have you ever taken your kids through a corn maze? You know, where you start at the nice ticket booth, proceed to get very lost, encounter some thrills and chills, a few dead ends along the way, and then exit back in civilization? Though predictable, it’s good fun.
That’s how the Louis Vuitton AC35 qualifiers and finals played out. But instead of getting lost in a maze, it was capsizes and man-overboards. Six teams competed: Team Oracle USA, Softbank Japan, Groupama France, Artemis Racing Sweden, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), and Ben Ainslee Racing (BAR) Great Britain. Groupama was eliminated at the first round robin. As the defender, Team Oracle USA was allowed to stop sailing, leaving the remaining four teams to compete for the right to challenge.
ETNZ exited the maze first and is the challenger for the America’s Cup. This was no surprise. The surprise was elsewhere.
The racing was spectacular. Bermuda’s Great Sound was like a giant fish bowl filled with boats. Sheltered from the Atlantic by land on three sides, Great Sound provided all that the America’s Cup Event Authority sought: a great bay, small enough to allow for viewing the races from the grandstand set up in the America’s Cup Village but large enough to allow for the charter and private boats anchored on the sidelines of the course to observe. There was genuine excitement in the village when the boats were racing.
The catamarans, reaching speeds of 40+kts, proved utterly compelling to watch. As they rose on their foils, they appeared like pterodactyls emerging from the water. Screaming around the race course, they were big, fast and furious. With a BMW fly time clock keeping track of their out-of-the-water-up-on-foils progress, these AC35 boats have proved that foiling is both the present and the future of sail racing.
The two favored teams have always been ETNZ and BAR. Frankly, the biggest surprise was how poorly BAR performed. Sources advised that the BAR challenge was very well funded, to the tune of $93 million, so money was not an issue. Also, the team had years to prepare, test the boats, and shake out the crew. They won the World Series with verve and precision. BAR thus came into the LV qualifiers with a point advantage.
Lastly, BAR had, well, Sir Ben Ainslie. He is arguably the world’s best sailor/tactician and a charismatic leader of crews on and off the water. His team underwhelmed. They had equipment problems, sailed poorly in light air, and made tactical mistakes that belied their training and heritage. But, as ETNZ’s skipper, Peter Burling, said, “You make one small mistake and a big lead turns into nothing.”
However, they, like Groupama before them, withdrew with real grace. Ben Ainslie’s team blamed only themselves and vowed to return for the next AC with an improved challenge and to “win the cup” next time around.
That leaves us with the winners, Oracle and ETNZ. In the words of one old-salt Cup observer, ETNZ are “the bad boys of the Cup.” Having lost the last time around to a stunning come-from-behind upset by Oracle, ETNZ is out to win. The sailing press is feasting on the “revenge” angle. It seems the Kiwis hope to overcome their San Francisco humiliation.
The extra sweet below-the-radar aspect of this is just how underfunded ETNZ is. It seems like they got into an imbroglio over sponsorship from their government and were told that they were on their own. New Zealand has only four million citizens and not a lot of rich companies.
ETNZ has refused to sign the new protocols agreed to by the other five teams. This new plan is for the Cup to be held every two years on boats whose design has already been agreed to. ETNZ is having none of it. Team leader Grant Dalton has been quoted as saying he’s willing to “ruin their little parade.”
There is little to say that has not been said about Oracle. They have skipper Jimmy Spithill, who has few equals plus all the funds needed for the best boat. They have a great crew that has been training for years. They won the first round robin handily. They may be unstoppable.
So, it is going to be a spectacular Louis Vuitton America’s Cup 35. A high stakes grudge match between two of the world’s best sailors: ETNZ’s Peter Burling and OTUSA’s Jimmy Spithill (who comes from Australia). No one can count on anything but a fantastic competition between boats and crews as they foil away on Bermuda’s Great Sound.
The racing starts Saturday, June 17th.
Jonathan Russo has been a sailing enthusiast for 30 years. He sails his Sabre 38 “Sachem” and an Etchell’s from the Shelter Island Yacht Club. He has written about sailing and racing for Soundings, Scuttlebut and The Shelter Island Reporter.