First fleet racing the AC40s in Barcelona

First fleet racing the AC40s in Barcelona

First fleet racing the AC40s in Barcelona


13/08/2023 - 18:45

It was day three of the race management, media and technology testing programme that again saw Emirates Team New Zealand, INEOS Britannia, NYYC American Magic and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli come out to the America’s Cup racecourse for some test match-racing, and for the first time, a couple of all-in fleet races.

Barcelona’s been a windy and choppy venue of late. “It’s not normally like this,” opined a local Spanish photographer yesterday – and as sailors we’ve all heard that one before – but today it was more to the August summer mean with a beautifully calm sea state and a breeze that filtered in from the east but struggled to break double-digits before falling away into the hazy afternoon. These are the days where the team’s wind whisperers earn their keep, the trimmers with the deftest of touches are gold-dust and the smoothest helms are rewarded. Tough day – especially around the leeward mark that was the graveyard of many a good race.

The techniques that are developing in the AC40 fleet are fascinating. Ray Davies commented on the different ‘modes’ that teams were running yesterday in the bigger breezes and when the wind’s up, those are more obvious but in the lighter stuff, it’s nuanced with many different theories on show to keep flying. The call seems to be when to ride that little bit higher just as the zephyrs die and to co-ordinate trim to keep that crucial bit of power on at the right moment. It’s such a fine line and even the very best get it wrong. In one spectacular fleet race, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli skipped away from the pack as they wallowed into desperate displacement, on another, the Kiwis just got richer and richer and looked to have found a completely different gear. If anyone thinks that the racing in Vilanova i La Geltrú in a few weeks’ time is going to be easy – think again. Consistency matters. A lot.

The format for the day was again to split into pairs with Emirates Team New Zealand and INEOS Britannia lining up on one course and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and NYYC American Magic on another. Picking form was an art and every team showed flashes of brilliance alongside episodes that their coaches and Team Principals will pore over with itchy chins. The Recon Unit for INEOS Britannia observed: “There was very little to choose between the two boats upwind or downwind in terms of straight-line speed but from our vantage point, the New Zealand crew's boat handling just looked that little bit crisper at times in terms of the stability and speed out of manoeuvres.”

Meanwhile over on the Italy vs America course, it was the Italians on ‘Luna Rossa’ led by Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni that looked super-slick today and forced errors into the playbook of Tom Slingsby and Paul Goodison on ‘Magic’ that saw them effectively score a 2-1 over the three early match - ‘races’ that were either concluded or abandoned.

First fleet racing the AC40s in Barcelona
First fleet racing the AC40s in Barcelona

After the separate racing, Iain Murray, Regatta Director, brought all four teams together for the showpieces of the day, desperate to get a couple of practice races in before the breeze shut down. This was the first time we have seen a fleet of AC40s racing together and the spectacle didn’t disappoint. The premium on starting, holding a lane and then working into the race was very much on show – atypical of one-design racing the world over – and with almost zero passing lanes being offered up, the rich typically got richer. Find a lifting puff that gives you position or any slight advantage and these sailors just capitalise like banshees. Emirates Team New Zealand did exactly that in the first fleet race and looked sensational, imperious even, but come the second race, and a woefully late start after nearly falling off their foils upwind on the lead back to the line and the Defenders went from hero to zero, unable even for them to get back into the race. The speed of the AC40s amplifies mistakes or judgement errors. It’s a brutal business, with no hiding places, conducted at break-neck speeds – even in the light airs.

After racing there were some terrific interviews to digest with all of the teams taking away ‘learnings’ but hugely grateful for the opportunity to line-up, perhaps not in anger, but in a spirit of ‘friendly competition between foreign nations’ – a line that George Shuyler demanded in the original Deed of Gift of 1857. It won’t stay like that come Vilanova i La Geltrú in September where the gloves will come off and all six teams will be competing – as an aside it’s great to see that the French ‘Orient Express Team’ now has taken delivery of their AC40 in Barcelona and will be sailing in a matter of days.

The mind games have started though, with Jimmy Spithill keen to take his preferred underdog position saying matter-of-factly: “I think we will just have to wait and see what happens in Villanova. Again for us we’re playing catch up you know, we just don't have the time of the other teams in two boating or being around another AC40 so we've always been focussed pretty hard on our development boat and so we've just got a lower hour count on the 40 so we're just trying to get as many as we can. I'm really observant of what the other guys are doing, and we've got a long way to go. We've got quite a lot to learn.”

First fleet racing the AC40s in Barcelona
First fleet racing the AC40s in Barcelona

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli have looked brilliant on the water in the past two days. Always in the mix and often right at the front, their smooth techniques and wonderful handling have got everyone animated. Jimmy sees it as a real combination saying: “I think it was one of those days where everyone had some good moments and bad moments and again until you really get around some other boats, you know there's a lot to learn just little technique differences, really watching what the others are doing. Again we've been really focusing pretty hard on the teams that have been doing a lot of two-boating with their AC 40s - being the Kiwis and the Americans - and yeah just try to learn as much as we could going into today…The hardware is exactly the same as the others and so it really just comes down to the teams using the controls you know - cant, ride height, the trim of the boat and obviously sail techniques, so there's a lot of little things there and I think the whole fleet is just learning.”

Terry Hutchinson struck a more long-term view, very much with his eyes on the ultimate prize and returning the America’s Cup back to the New York Yacht Club who held the trophy from 1851 through to 1983. Terry broad-scoped saying: “So we entered at the beginning of 2022, so I feel like we've been racing ever since then. This is just part of the milestone of it and yeah I mean it's good to have the boats out sailing, racing against each other, we've had a couple good days with Luna Rossa and then we did a couple of races today which were good as in the race committee team worked out the kinks and the bugs between the media system and getting some of the autonomous marks in a spot that everything is functional. So I think for American Magic we have 15 months to get ourselves ready for the Challenger Series and the Americas Cup, so each one of these opportunities you take and at the same time you know the lessons learned are building the foundation for our team.”

Those foundations would appear solid. The Americans are sailing super-hard day after day and really honing their modes and techniques into a real force in this America’s Cup cycle as was proven yesterday. Today was tough, but Terry struck an optimistic cord saying: “We have 15 months to develop a streamlined communication through incredibly talented sailors that know the right thing to do but have to learn each other, and so I'm always impressed at the demeanour that the guys have when they're racing the boat, not so much today, but yesterday when it was windy and we're on the J3s and we're bearing away and the boats are sailing to the high 40s, you know it's always impressive how flat-lined the guys are when they’re on the boat, it’s really, really, good. Today was a much harder day than yesterday and so it’s good to see where we're weak and where we’re strong and that's how we learn.”

Leigh McMillan cut a considered tone looking at the three days that they’ve spent tuning up with Emirates Team New Zealand saying: “Generally with the three days, we felt pretty strong so there's nothing there that we want to throw our tuning guide in the bin, I think certainly getting into the dirty air in the light, getting into those moments, maybe moding the boat for the very bottom end of the range is something, the one area we've got to look at.”

However, for INEOS Britannia, the AC40 programme clearly has not been their main priority with the development work on their LEQ12 ‘T6’ taking centre stage as Leigh confirmed saying: “We’re certainly going to put some more time on the boat (the AC40) than we have up to now but it's still not our primary focus, the Cup itself and designing and having a fast boat for the America’s Cup has got to be our absolute goal, but sure as we get closer to the event (in Vilanova) there will be a few more training days, I think there's another one of these weekends set up as well where we will be racing against other teams, but ultimately the goal is the America's Cup, so it's not all about the AC40 for now.”

Pete Burling, skipper on Emirates Team New Zealand who stayed out practicing in the super-light conditions for some 45 minutes after all the racing had concluded, saw the three days as highly valuable saying: “It's been amazing to see the progression of the systems over the three days you know from virtually everything getting bolted on the boat under a week ago to you know testing the systems the first time. Every day we've had huge steps forward, there’s obviously still a little bit to go but it's been amazing to see the progression so far.”

Talking through the fleet racing, Pete summed up the day saying: “The first start we had really nice conditions there's probably nine knots or something like that so you don't have to worry too much about the wind shadows you could kind of manoeuvre anywhere and we did a nice job putting the right good spot and then the second one we actually ended up almost coming off the foil in a manoeuvre that 5 minutes out to start and barely made it back in time so we were right on the back foot the whole way and it was hard to get back into the race. It definitely wasn't really our intention to start on port, but we just got a little bit too late and in that dying breeze I think we saw everyone apart from Prada off the foil at the end and not actually finishing the race. It's pretty tricky when it gets below that seven knots to keep these boats going especially when you're crossing the wind shadows. It's great practise you know they’re a super tough conditions and we're really excited to be out there racing other teams.”

Fantastic three days here in Barcelona. Plenty learned by all the teams and also by the race management, media and technology suppliers. Boxes were ticked all round but an early pecking order for Vilanova i La Geltrú is starting to form. One thing we know for sure – it will be desperately tight, and consistency is the name of the AC40 game.

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