It is impossible to overstate the importance and significance of the first race in any America’s Cup, as the anticipation and build-up that occurs on the first day is beyond anything else in the sport.
The first day of the 36th America’s Cup did not disappoint with Defender Emirates Team New Zealand and Challenger Luna Rossa tied after two sets. The fairly similar performances between the two boats confirmed once again that there is no room for mistakes.
The results clearly show that there is a long way to go in this first match of the Copa América for the best of 13 rounds. As 170 years of history taught us, the game is far from over.
As the clock counted down for the last few minutes before the start, the wind speed had been set at 10 to 12 knots.
Emirates Team New Zealand entered from the left side on a port tack and headed for the pre-start area at 44 knots. As they crossed the prow of the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli with distance to spare, both boats went deep into the area. As they made their way to the right corner and jibe to get deeper, the pair prepared to block the foils. But when they both headed back to the starting line, judging the time in the distance for the return was crucial. Both appeared to be arriving early as Emirates Team New Zealand switched to take the windward position as each headed upward to slow down. Neither of them came off, but these were precious seconds for both of them as they tried to pass the time. Luna Rossa’s co-rudder, Jimmy Spithill, forced the Kiwis who were going to climb further to windward as he tried to control the position.
But when they both crossed the line, the defenders had a slight advantage sitting upwind and looking to outrun rivals.
In an attempt to prevent the kiwis from rolling in the breeze, Luna Rossa tried to luff the kiwis and protested, complaining that Emirates Team New Zealand had not stayed away. From the air it looked like a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable. The referees took the same point of view and refused to impose a penalty.
The move had been an Italian gamble that hadn’t paid off and slowed them down in the process, handing the lead to Emirates Team New Zealand.
From there, the home team maintained its lead throughout the three-lap race and, although the distance between them decreased and flowed with each lap and never exceeded 23 seconds, Luna Rossa was unable to make a big enough impression on the Kiwi leader.
After 23 minutes of racing, Emirates Team New Zealand claimed the first victory of the 36th America’s Cup in a regatta that was defined in the first seconds of the start.
When both boats entered the exit zone, the wind had picked up a bit and was at 13 knots. Entries were reversed from the previous race, Luna Rossa entered from the left, with Emirates Team New Zealand entering from the right.
Once again they both headed to the right side of the pre-start zone, but this time the New Zealand team turned as the Italians gybed. When the Kiwis came down to face the Italians, they were a bit slow to do so and finished behind. The result was that the initial advantage went to the Italians, forcing the Kiwis to port early to try to escape the clutches of their opponents.
But co-helmsmen Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni had anticipated this and rushed for cover.
As the pair headed to the right and the next tack occurred, Luna Rossa made a similar defensive move, turning the New Zealand team’s bow and sailing as high as possible to prevent the kiwis from passing. The tactic was working, but the margin was still small.
On the next tack back to port, Luna Rossa was heading windward, but Emirates Team New Zealand had a clear wind to leeward. Was this your chance to put your feet on the ground and slide downwind?
It could have been an opportunity, but Peter Burling and company couldn’t take it. Another tack back to starboard and the Italian defensive position returned.
At Gate 1, the Italians had managed to take a 13-second lead over the Kiwis as both boats rounded the mark to the right of the gate. From there, little changed in the first section downwind, which was a drag race to Gate 2, the Kiwis fell back a single second to tack 12 seconds behind.
Midway through the second beat, the Italians benefited from choosing the better side of the field and extended their lead to 250 meters. However, despite the physical distance between the two, the Italians continued to cover their opponents.
At gate 3, Luna Rossa had extended her lead to 25 seconds as they rounded the mark to the left of the gate, accelerating to 49.8 knots.
An indication of how hard the kiwis were chasing came when they turned the same mark reaching 51 knots as they did so. In the water, the distance between the pair was now 430 m.
As the Italians prepared to round the mark to the left of Gate 4, they dropped their starboard foil, the first indication that they wanted to make a high-speed tack out of the tack. They did it and it was perfect.
But heading to the right side of the field cost them some distance from the Kiwis who circled the same mark on the left but headed to the left. By the time the pair got back together, the margin had dropped significantly and at gate 5 the time between them was just 12 seconds, down from 24.
On the last downwind stretch to the finish, the tension increased as the kiwis caught some breeze with them and fell back a few more seconds.
In the end it was close, only 7 seconds. But a victory is a victory, whatever the margin. The Italians had put their first point on the board.
So for those looking for a clear indication of who has the advantage in the 36th Copa América, the opening day was no guide. Instead, it showed just how even these two teams are and how the Cup seems unlikely to be a trade-off, for either team.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism