There was plenty of emotion in Auckland's Viaduct Harbour on Tuesday, 16 March, as Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Ross Prada Pirelli's AC75 yachts were towed from their bases – maybe it was the climax building after three years of hard graft, one year of Covid and the high profile characters that have come and gone on the road to this America’s Cup: the bitter disappointments of Dean Barker, Terry Hutchinson, Ben Ainslie and their men have somehow touched more keenly this time around.
But America’s Cup 2021 still has one more set of hearts to set on fire and one more set to break.
As it turned out, race 9 delivered one of the most exciting days in America’s Cup racing – immediately after one of the other most exciting days in America’s Cup racing.
Emirates Team New Zealand had 5 points; Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli had 3. Two wins would give ETNZ the Auld Mug.
But the venue was cheeky Course C on which fickle breezes flick about like butterfly wings. Jimmy Spithill said it was a tough race track, so it must be. ETNZ’s Peter Burling and his flight controller Blair Tuke have raced many times in the area off North Head.
LRPP and its lethal high mode pretty much decided that the Italians would start to windward after lots of weaving in the start box as both boats tried to shed speed. The start was even, both on starboard with a big gap between the two. A critical tack was coming. The Italians’ height mode eventually forced the Kiwis to tack off while LRPP headed for the right-hand lay line for the top gate. As they came together, the Kiwis dipped the Italians’ transom to take the right hand mark, LRPP took the left hand, leading by just a second. The lead changed so many times it was hard to keep count: sometimes it was due to boat speed; sometimes, flukey wind. The boats were often close and we would have loved to have seen Jimmy Spithill’s heartbeat. The grinders were working overtime and every tack, every gybe had to be perfect. One mistake would be race-over – the Italians could not shake off the Kiwis; the Kiwis could not get past the Italians. Coming into mark two, LRPP had starboard advantage and gybed on top of ETNZ. It was an aggressive move; the only way to win. LRPP was desperate to get back to within a point of ETNZ on the scoreboard. They made New Zealand sail in their dust and extended the lead around the mark. But not for long. The lead stretched, shrunk and swapped but ETNZ needed to get control to win. It was a good, clean fight without penalties and, beyond the tension, you could feel the sailors’ exhilaration as they took the world's largest foiling monohulls into the full potential of their racing drama. Towards the top of Leg 5, the boats converged once more and the Kiwis came back on starboard. Luna Rossa was just ahead and tacked, forcing the Kiwis back to the right-hand side. But it was like Brer Fox throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch; Peter Burling knows his way around the briar patch. “It’s definitely a patch of water that I’ve done a whole lot of yachting in and several people on our boat had as well,” Burling said later. “It’s a dynamic boat and it’s definitely pretty cool to be able to throw it around the race course in these dynamic conditions.” These days, Burling’s favourite word is dynamic. Then the butterfly wings flicked in a right-hand shift and put ETNZ ahead at the next cross. They rounded gate 5 with a delta of 18 seconds and roared to the finish 39 seconds ahead of the Italians. That was quite enough excitement for one day and, with the wind requiring a new course laid
, race director Iain Murray postponed, then abandoned, race 10. Throughout this regatta, Spithill has said he’s racing the best in the world, and all the journalists in the press conference wanted him to reprise his famous line of 2013: “I think the question is: what if these guys lost from here? What a story that would be.” But despite being thrown several cues, he didn’t follow the script. “The scoreline doesn’t lie,” he said. “The way I’ve been brought up, you always respect your opponent. There’s a lot of respect between the sailing teams and we enjoy the fight.” ETNZ is on match point, but never, ever underestimate Jimmy Spithill when he’s down. After all, he has to be pretty good to be racing the best in the world – and leading them most of the way around the course.
If you enjoy my writing, please visit my website to learn more about my new book, Wild Seas to Greenland.
Photo credit: ACE/Studio Borlenghi.