VALENCIA, Spain - U.S. America's Cup challenger BMW Oracle trounced the Swiss defender Alinghi today in the first race of the 33rd America's Cup.
The time difference at the end of the 40-mile race (20 miles upwind, 20 miles downwind) was 15 minutes, 28 seconds. The distance between the yachts at the finish was 3,500 meters (1.7 nautical miles.) Australian James Spithill was at the helm of BOR's trimaran (USA-17), while Alinghi chief Ernesto Bertarelli helmed his syndicate's catamaran (Alinghi 5).
Basically, this was a victory for technology. USA-17's articulated wing sail generated huge power and speed even in the light 8-knot breezes in the Mediterranean. At one point in the downwind run, BOR was clocking almost 29 mph.
"The wing is very versatile, but I can't build one between now and the next race," said Bertarelli.
The start was the most dramatic part of the race, as it often is in match racing. A near collision before the start - what looked like it might be a head-on crash - resulted in BOR protesting and Alinghi being flagged with a penalty. The Swiss boat had to perform a 270-degree penalty turn before the end of the race.
However, immediately after the penalty was flagged, both boats slowed, and USA-17 had difficulty getting under way again - not unusual with multihulls. BOR started 660 meters and 1 minute, 20 seconds after Alinghi, but caught up with the cat halfway up the windward beat and was never behind again.
"I pushed hard to get Alinghi the penalty and a minute later was in trouble myself," said Spithill.
"There was a winch problem at the start, so we had trouble getting the boat going, but we clawed back brilliantly," said BOR syndicate head Larry Ellison.
Surprisingly, USA-17 proved faster than Alinghi 5 in light winds. The reverse had been thought to be the case, with the Americans favored in heavier winds of around 15 knots. USA-17 led by 3:21 at the upwind mark and was ahead by 1,400 meters (1,531 yards).
Electronics played a big part on both boats. Black boxes, some of them secret, and delicate sensors are all over the hulls and masts. Skipper Spithill wore a backpack full of electronics as he scrambled back and forth between the 90-foot trimaran's starboard and port steering stations. One slip and he would have been over the side - very exciting stuff.
The first yacht to win two races takes the Cup, which means the next regatta could be sailed on San Francisco Bay, home of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, BOR's representing club.
The second race is scheduled for Sunday and will be an equidistant triangle of 39 miles. If a third race is needed, the format will revert to the 20 miles upwind and 20 miles downwind format.
- Bob Black