A look at the ‘best Cup match ever’

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The 32nd America’s Cup will be remembered for some of the closest racing in the event’s 156-year history

The 32nd America’s Cup will be remembered for some of the closest racing in the event’s 156-year history

This America’s Cup did not disappoint unless your only interest was in the American syndicate. Alinghi’s successful defense of the Cup against Emirates Team New Zealand was a heart-stopper, and the numbers suggest that the four-year run-up to that finale was quite a success, as well.

The photo-finish seventh race, which clinched the series for the Swiss syndicate, delivered an electrifying shot of adrenaline in a series that was far closer than the 5-2 result suggests. “It was the best Cup match ever,” says Cup historian and author John Rousmaniere, who caught the action from the deck of the 597-foot cruise ship Silver Whisper, one of the vessels in a spectator fleet that numbered 2,000 on the final weekend of racing in Valencia, Spain.

Not one to rest on its laurels, America’s Cup Management announced just two days after Alinghi’s victory the protocol for the next Cup — the 33rd in the event’s 156-year history — and unveiled plans for a new class of 90-foot raceboat sailed by 20 crewmembers. The first new America’s Cup Class since 1989, the 90-footers will be bigger, faster and harder to handle — as well as more expensive to design, build and crew — than the current crop of 78- to 80-feet ACC boats.

Alinghi’s billionaire syndicate head, Ernesto Bertarelli, and his Cup management team “obviously are sure that sponsors and a few wealthy people will support [this],” says Rousmaniere.

The protocol, authored by the defender — Société Nautique de Genève — and agreed to by the challenger of record — Club Náutico Español de Vela — states that the next America’s Cup will start no sooner than 2009 and no later than 2011 and will be similar to the 32nd Cup, with preregattas (possibly used as qualifiers for the main event) and a main event comprising challenger trials and selection, and the America’s Cup match. No venue has been selected, but ACM CEO Michel Bonnefous says Valencia has the edge because of ACM’s relationship with the city and the Spanish government. He says venue negotiations are ongoing.

Rousmaniere says it is unusual — in fact, this may be the first time — that the defender has changed the class of yacht on such short notice and after such secretive negotiations. “Everybody knew what the ACC, 12 Meter and J-boat classes were when they were announced in 1989, 1956 and the 1920s,” he says. “The New York Yacht Club, to my knowledge, mostly made interpretations of the deed of gift only concerning nationality and small rules.” And when they made those interpretations, they usually gave challengers more notice than the two years that could be in play here. “This gives Alinghi a head start on design, which will make it easier for them to defend,” he says.

With attention already turning to the next Cup, Gary Jobson — author, commentator and tactician for Ted Turner’s winning 1977 Courageous campaign — reminds aficionados that this last competition should go down in the annals as some of the most exciting racing in the event’s 156-year history. “Every race was up for grabs,” he says. “The boats were very even in speed, the breaks went both ways, and all seven races were a joy to watch. Alinghi just had a little extra of everything when it counted, and that was the difference.”

At the start of the America’s Cup finals, Jobson gave New Zealand helmsman Dean Barker a slight edge over Alinghi’s Ed Baird. But he judged the Swiss boat’s Brad Butterworth and Kiwi’s Terry Hutchinson about even as tacticians and Alinghi’s SUI 100 raceboat a tad faster in winds higher than 12 knots. However, much of the racing was in light to moderate winds, so boat speed was less a factor than tactics, playing shifts and mistakes.

Jobson says race six — with Alinghi up 3-2 — was a turning point. New Zealand had led early in four of the five previous races and was leading again in race six when, in a tacking duel, they tacked to the left, forcing Alinghi to the right and into more favorable air that gave them a 28-

second victory. Jobson says the decision to go left was squarely on tactician Hutchinson’s shoulders. “It was his alone to make and would ultimately be the crucial moment that would decide the turning point of the 32nd America’s Cup,” giving Alinghi a commanding 4-2 lead, he says.

Yet even the last race could have gone either way. Alinghi was four boat lengths ahead and driving for the finish when a big wind shift brought the Kiwis within striking distance. But just before the finish the Kiwis had to do a 360-degree penalty turn and lunged across the line a nose behind Alinghi. Point, game, match. “It would be hard to imagine anymore of a dramatic ending,” Jobson says.

ACM, evaluating the four-year runup to the Cup, was clearly pleased with the close racing, the European venue and the 14 “Acts,” or pre-Cup regattas, in Valencia; Trapani, Sicily; Marseilles, France; and Malmo-Skane, Sweden. Bonnefous reports that 6 million people visited the race venues for the pre-regattas, the challenger series and the Cup match, and television footage of the events reached some 4 billion viewers. “This first America’s Cup in Europe has been a big step forward for the oldest and most prestigious sporting prize,” he says.

Bonnefous says the Acts did what they were supposed to: stir up interest in the Cup and give the syndicates more opportunities to race against each other, fine-tune their crew work, and deliver close racing in the challenger series and Cup match. “The result was the closest America’s Cup in recent history, where all 12 teams were quite evenly matched,” he says. “The best example was the America’s Cup Match itself, with the closest score line since the advent of the ACC, numerous lead changes, and a final race decided by just one second.”

The collapse of BMW Oracle Racing, the only U.S. syndicate, in the semifinal round of the challenger series may have been a disappointment to Cup followers on this side of the Atlantic, but for Alinghi this regatta gave them their second Cup victory — first as challenger in 2003 and now as defender. “[This is] one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and today is probably — besides the birth of my kids — the best day of my life,” said Alinghi’s Bertarelli after the prize-giving.