America’s Cup: Fear & Loathing in Valencia Part III

Written By Nils Erickson

The Swiss team took the lead in the last seconds of the final race during America’s Cup. Photo by Nils Erickson

Say what you will, this was the best America’s Cup ever. The stakes were higher than ever, the level of competition was as high as ever, and with Valencia as a backdrop the venue was incomparable. The cliché in Valencia was that your head was for the Swiss, and your heart was with the Kiwis. In the end the head prevailed, and Alinghi retained the Cup in dramatic fashion. 

The final race, race number seven, will be remembered as the most dramatic finish in America’s Cup history. Emirates Team New Zealand started on the favored right hand end of the start box during the prestart.

In the first four minutes leading up to the actual start, ETNZ controlled the Swiss boat. With one minute to go, though, the Kiwis let the Swiss off the hook and bore away for a left hand start. The two boats hit the line at speed with no clear leader.  

With the two boats matched for speed, the starboard advantage of the right hand side paid off for the Swiss, and at the first mark rounding the Swiss carried a small lead. The name of the game in match racing is staying between your opponent and the mark, and the Swiss kept the game close.

Alinghi committed a very rare sail handling mistake during a jibe and the Kiwis pounced. In the first textbook downwind pass of the Cup, the Kiwis sailed past the Swiss boat, stealing their wind and taking the lead.  

In a replay of the Kiwis mistake in race five, NZ took the left hand gate at the leeward mark rounding. Giving up the favored right hand side to the Swiss, the Kiwis gambled that an easier mark rounding and an advantage on the left would pay off. It didn’t.  

The Swiss initiated a tacking duel and used their starboard tack advantage to eat into the lead of the Kiwis. Forcing the game to the left hand side of the course, the Kiwis were pinned into a corner with few tactical options as they neared the top mark.  

Though leading, the Kiwis were unable to cross ahead of the Swiss, and unable to force the Swiss to tack. The Kiwis were forced to tack, then duck the Swiss, or sail behind them. It is a textbook play in the game. So is the response. The Swiss anticipated the duck and sailed below their normal course in a dramatic move called a “dial down.”  

A boat on starboard, in this case Alinghi, is allowed to sail anywhere above a beam reach, or with the wind at 90 degrees or less. The responsibility of the Kiwis is to avoid a collision at all costs. The umpires on the water deemed that the Kiwis did not keep clear, and were penalized. The punishment is a forced 360 degree turn to be taken before the end of the race. The death blow. The Cup was over, the party would begin.

The Kiwis were trailing by a large margin. Barring a catastrophic failure they had won. Then the failure. The wind suddenly veered 100 degrees to the left in an unprecedented shift. What was a walk off home run suddenly became a Kiwi wind god gift.

As the breeze shifted, the spinnaker on the Swiss boat collapsed and the spinnaker pole splintered. There was no jib on deck and the spinnaker billowed uncontrollably. The Kiwis meanwhile had anticipated the shift, had taken their spinnaker down and set a genoa. 

In the blink of an eye the race was back on, and with only two minutes to the finish. The Kiwis were clearly ahead but still had to exonerate themselves with a penalty turn. A boat length from the finish the Kiwis began their turn with Alinghi 100 meters behind. As the Kiwis finished their turn they bore off for the finish. The cinderella story wasn’t to be though. They lost by about 10 feet. One second. The closest match in America’s Cup history. 

The 2,000 assembled boats on the race course erupted in horns, cow bells, and applause. Dumbstruck Kiwi fans found their hopes vanquished. The Cup will stay in Europe. 

In the days since their victory, the Swiss have announced some major changes to the Cup. The Spanish team is the official Challenger of Record and will work with the Swiss to conduct the next edition. It has been announced that the next cup will be run with different boats. The 74’ traditional displacement boats will be replaced with modern 90’ machines. Many questions remain though. 

The Swiss will not commit to where it will be held (Valencia or otherwise), will not commit to when it will be held, or what exactly these new boats will look like. The accusations of a tilted table are many, as Swiss billionaire Ernesto Berterelli attempts to bring the Cup into a more modern context. What direction the Cup takes from here is unknown, but the 32nd America’s Cup will be remembered as the most dramatic in a generation.

On a personal note, I would like to thank the wonderful ladies at Tradewinds for helping me. This trip, without the benefits of press accreditation, would not have compared. The conversations and camaraderie between the journalists, the access to the teams I was granted, and the benefits of my media pass made this one of the most incredible adventures I have had.