America's Cup - November 2011

The last time the America’s Cup was contested in San Diego, 1995, the boats were towed far out to sea, far out of sight of the public. The teams were scattered around different parts of the city, and if you’d told a taxi driver you were in town for the America’s Cup, he would have had no clue about what you were talking about.

In November, the America’s Cup World Series brought Cup racing back to San Diego for the first time in 16 years, but this time it was in the bay, right in front of the city. The VIP guest area was situated on the deck of the USS Midway, the giant floating museum of an aircraft carrier which was decommissioned after the Gulf War 20 years ago.

All that was needed was some good old reliable San Diego sunshine and a warm, moderate breeze. Unfortunately, the southernmost part of Southern California failed to provide much of either. Dull, overcast, rainy and mostly soft breezes failed to create the spectacle that organisers, sailors and spectators might have hoped for.

It all came good for the final day, though, with a humdinger of a winner-takes-all fleet race to bring the event to a climactic conclusion. James Spithill, Oracle Racing’s winning skipper, has been one of the class acts of this season, but not THE class act that he was expected to be. Having his boss, billionaire Larry Ellison, riding on the back of the AC45 in the sixth-man spot, seemed to galvanise Spithill and his crew to a higher level of focus and commitment. No sooner had he won the match racing final 2-0 against the fast-improving Energy Team from France, Spithill handed over the helm to Ellison, sprayed the Moet champagne all over his boss, and said he wanted to be the first to ‘do the double’ of winning the Fleet Racing Championship the next day.

After the soft breezes of the match racing, the fleet race took place in 17 knots of breeze. The fleet launched off the start line towards the USS Midway and straight into a frenetic gybe. Spithill’s arch rival, Dean Barker, stole his thunder with a perfectly executed carve gybe and into the lead towards the bottom of the course. However Spithill took some risks, weaving his way through the fleet precariously on port tack, and was rewarded with some clear air. Once in the lead the Oracle skipper was launched, and never looked back, leaving his challenger rivals to scrap amongst themselves.

After such a barnstorming performance, Spithill wished he could have Larry on the back of the boat every day. “I just don’t know if we can convince the board of Oracle [Corporation] to let him go,” quipped the Australian. Talking of Australians, three more of them have joined Oracle Racing: 23-year-old match racing expert Kyle Langford, reigning Laser World Champion Tom Slingsby, and multiple Olympic and world medallist Darren Bundock. For San Diego, Russell Coutts stepped off the boat to give Bundock his first shot at AC45 competition. He duly won his first race on day one of the event, but struggled in the match racing and finished dead last in the final day’s fleet race. Not an auspicious start, although Bundock did win the 500m speed trial earlier in the day, beating his team mate Spithill by 0.10 second.

Bundock’s speed trial victory shows he knows how to drive a boat fast, and more practice time on the AC45 will make him a formidable sparring partner for Spithill. “We'll go away and work out what went wrong,” said Bundock. “We've got some work to do if we're going to keep pushing Jimmy hard.”

Spithill has no doubt of Bundock’s ability to give him a run for his money, however. “We're not going to get the racing the challengers are going to get. We're going to create a brutal race series in-house series and make sure we leave no stone unturned and be ready to go.”

Meanwhile, a collaboration between Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa has put a cat among the pigeons. Luna Rossa? Yes, I haven’t mentioned them for the past year or so because it seemed that Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli had tired of the America’s Cup. However, with Prada set to open 400 new stores in China, and the newly wealthy Chinese middle classes showing an insatiable appetite for the Italian fashion brand, Bertelli is keen to spend money on another Cup campaign.

With the Kiwis already having employed a 30-strong design office for the past year, which has been busy researching the design for the AC72 catamaran that will contest the Cup in San Francisco 2013, the prospect of a partnership with Emirates Team New Zealand puts the Italian latecomers right back in the game. Presumably the Kiwis have been handsomely compensated for opening the doors to their operation, and these two plan to train with each other over the Auckland summer. In the meantime, two identical AC72s will go into production, one for Team New Zealand and one for Luna Rossa.

With a five-month hiatus until the next event on the America’s Cup World Series, Naples in April, the regatta transport ship takes all the other challenger teams’ AC45s back to the Mediterranean, with the majority opting to base themselves out of Valencia. The rise of the two French teams in San Diego, Aleph and Energy Team, was a revelation. But for them and some of the other small teams, the biggest challenge is securing the commercial backing to continue their campaign into 2012. The Euro crisis and general economic malaise in the world is doing nothing to help their cause.

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