After waiting five days for good sailing conditions, the two competitors for the 33rd America's Cup Match finally drew their swords and began a duel that won't soon be forgotten. In the 5-minutes of maneuvering before the starting gun, skipper James Spithill of USA laid double trouble on the Alinghi 5, using its right-of-way position to force Swiss skipper Ernesto Bertarelli to tack into an unfavored position and, misjudging the speed of USA, Bertarelli tacked too late. Spithill changed course to avoid a collision, but it was heart-stopping moment and Alinghi drew a penalty—a 270-degree turn they executed at the end of the race.
I've match raced in boats that go 5 or 6 knots, and I can tell you the adrenalin involved in this maneuver, which is a called a "dial-up", is quite enough for me at those speeds. I'm sure two 90-footers had never entered the starting area for a match race with hulls flying and closing at such high speeds. And although I was watching on the Internet, like many other sailing fans, I won't mind watching it several more times. The photos below give you a sense of the sequence.
Perhaps if an experienced match racer had been at the helm, rather than Alinghi owner Bertarelli, the penalty wouldn't have occurred, but it's hard to say. Nobody has engaged in the cut-and-thrust of professional pre-start match racing in boats that are so fast. And, as well, it made no difference in the final result.
Despite the penalty, there was plenty of intrigue soon to follow. Spithill was in a controlling position until one minute before the start, then overplayed his hand and lost steerageway with the winged trimaran, which can be tempermental in light winds at slow speeds. Bertarelli was able to jibe away and escape, then start the race well ahead of the American boat, which was a full 600-plus meters behind before it crossed the line.
Nonetheless, the winds were light, only 5 to 6 knots at the start, and the racecourse for the day was 40 miles long—20 miles upwind to a buoy set to the south, far down the coast of Spain, and then back. So, the game had really only just begun.
Most experienced multihull sailors knew beforehand that a light-air race between these two boats, one with two hulls and one with three, might well hinge on the question of which could fly a hull (or two) first. Many were betting that BMW Oracle's USA would be faster once powered up, but that the lighter Alinghi 5 would fly its hull first, which would give it a big advantage in exactly these wind conditions.
The experts were dead wrong on this day. USA flew a large jib and, with its two-element wing (223 feet tall) in full lifting mode, its crew was able to fly both hulls without difficulty. Alinghi, by contrast, flew its hull most of the time, but when the winds lightened up periodically, the windward hull often came down and kissed the water, creating extra drag. The Alinghi crew changed jibs early in the race, which might've helped a bit, but the change process also slowed them down.
Both boats took off on port tack and put on an impressive speed display, sailing between 16 and 24 knots upwind in 5 to 10 knots of wind—that's 2.5 times wind speed. Very efficient!
But USA was able to point a few degrees closer to the wind and sail an average of close to a knot faster. At the mark they had a big lead and, again, even though its three hulls are presumably heavier, they were faster downwind too.
Notably, because of the light air, two members of the BMW Oracle team got off the boat before the race—owner Larry Ellison and the winningest skipper in America's Cup history, New Zealander Russell Coutts, who has directed the entire campaign, but ceded his helm position to the youthful James Spithill, of Australia.
For more on the first race, and a preview of Sunday's Race 2 (which could be the final contest in this best-two-of-three series), I recommend that you read Kimball Livingston's recent reports, USA (USA) and Mode Mod, written on location in Valencia. To watch Race 2, go to americascup.com or (as an alternative in the U.S.) ESPN360.com.