Down to the final four! Like any playoff series the tension builds. So much to gain but so much to lose. Which team will prevail? Will it be the Japanese who are led by a Kiwi, the Swedes with an Aussie at the helm, the Kiwis skippered by their young Olympian, or the Brits with a knight of the realm at the wheel?
Favorites going into the Qualifying series were Land Rover BAR. The British team with Sir Ben Ainslie at the helm had a two point advantage from the AC World Series. That lead was soon whittled away with boat speed issues, technical failures, and on the water errors including a collision. Sir Ben did not seem on top of his game, in spite of being the most successful sailor of our time. Perhaps the pressure “To Bring the Cup Home” was proving too much? The GBR team ended the Qualifying Series in third place with 6 points overall.
Emirates Team New Zealand throughout the Qualifying series looked very strong on the water with gold medalist Peter Burling leading his team to 8 wins and 2 losses. The Kiwi’s sailing record was matched by ORACLE TEAM USA. However, the one bonus point carried forward from the AC World Series gave the American Team the top slot on the leader board.
This is a significant advantage for ORACLE since they carry a one point lead going forward into the final round of the America’s Cup.
From the original five Challengers the first to be eliminated was Groupama Team France. Going into the round robin they were always the underdog and in spite of Franck Cammas’ world speed records and huge experience in multihull sailing he could not pull off a miracle. They finished at the bottom of the table with a 2 win and 6 loss record. Their 35th America’s Cup involvement was over. It was time to say, “Adieu” and head for home.
In day one of the Challenger Playoffs Emirates Team New Zealand, as top Challenger, had the option of selecting who would be their opponent in the semi-finals. They chose Land Rover BAR hoping for close competitive sailing to hone their skills. But it was a disastrous day for the Brits who again experienced technical problems and were unable to finish the first of the playoff races. The GBR Team returned to their Base to make the necessary repairs to their wingsail hoping to get out on the water in time for the second race of the day. Unfortunately their efforts failed. They could not make it to the start line in time and were thus disqualified. One ‘retired’ and one DSQ; not a good start to their playoff hopes.
Going into the second day the weather conditions were quite different providing much more excitement than the day before. High winds on the high seas. Winds were gusting over the 24 knot upper wind speed limit allowed by America’s Cup protocol but after a short postponement the rolling average speed was within range. Iain Murray, Regatta Director, started the race sequence.
Pushing the limits, Team New Zealand damaged their wing sail before the first race. Making a quick trip back to Base, foiling at over 44 knots, they opted to replace the damaged wing with their backup wingsail – the one they were saving for the AC Finals. They made it back onto the race course just in time to face off against Land Rover BAR in the dial up to the start. Ben Ainslie out maneuvered Peter Burling in the start box and crossed the line in front on the Kiwis but as the Kiwis accelerated towards the line they stubbed their toe and catastrophically pitchpoled. Men in the water. Wingsail shredded. Cyclers hanging from their cleats. Not a pretty picture. Luckily no-one was hurt. Now the Kiwis had two wingsails to repair.
Everyone thought this would give the Brits the upper hand but it was not to be. On the third day of racing Emirates Team NZ came out strong and took the first race handily. Then Land Rover BAR rallied in the second race of the day. Sir Ben got the hook at the start of the race and never looked back. Sailing very smoothly the Brits kept on foil 100% of the race unlike Emirates Team New Zealand who appeared wobbly in the tacks and not on foil as much as usual. They were either having some technical issues with their foil controls and or they were folding under the pressure of a last ditch Brit challenge.
With the score at 2 races to 4 in New Zealand’s favor it was a do-or-die moment. Who would prevail? The duel was on. As the starting clock ticked down all eyes were on the race course. Young Peter Burling did not flinch. He gave Sir Ben no opportunity to consolidate. The Kiwis took the start and literally never looked back. The Brits could not rally – the Empire lost and the Colonials prevailed.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the team”, Ainslie said at the Press Conference with a stiff upper lip. He promised the British Team would be back for the 36th Cup.
Meanwhile in the other Semi final the Swedish Team and the Japanese were having a humdinger of a contest with multiple lead changes. Dean Barker was doing well with the ‘old age and treachery’ strategy forcing young Nathan Outteridge to make mistakes and suffer on the water penalties.
Coming into the third day of racing Artemis Racing were behind SoftBank Team Japan, 3 points to 1. Outteridge and his Team came out blasting and suddenly the tables were turned.
Team Japan fought back hard. In the third race of the day they won the start and stayed ahead until the final weather leg. Artemis gained on leg 5 forcing SoftBank to duck them on a port/ starboard cross. Coming into the gate rounding SoftBank, on starboard tack, was closer to the righthand gate. Artemis, on port, was headed for the lefthand gate. Decisions, decisions. In an attempt to close the gap SoftBank opted to cut Artemis off at the righthand gate. Artemis however had better boat speed and entered the two boat length zone in front of SoftBank, forcing Barker to veer away. The boats were a whisker apart, a collision looked imminent. Artemis demanded a penalty for not providing room at the mark. The Umpires ruled in their favor.
This one maneuver sealed the fate of the race. Artemis crossed the finish line 1 minute and 46 seconds ahead. Outteridge had stage-managed a magnificent comeback, seizing a hat trick of wins to finish the day one race ahead of a visibly shaken Barker. This was looking a lot like the last Cup where Barker had a huge lead snatched from him by Jimmy Spithill and the ORACLE Team.
Final day of the semi-finals dawned – wild and windy. The last chapter is waiting to be written!
By Wendy Gray
Photos by Mac Madenwald