America's Cup - October 2012

The French Energy Team will forever be in the debt of local sailor San Francisco sailor Todd Tholke. The question is, exactly by how much will Loick Peyron and his team be in debt?

It all started when late one night, just a few days before the start of the America’s Cup World Series regatta in October, the French AC45 broke its moorings off the city waterfront. Unmanned, the boat started drifting away down San Francisco Bay until it landed on the rocks of Treasure Island. According to local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, Tholke happened to spot the runaway cat aboard his 14-foot Boston Whaler and set about towing the multihull off the rocks to the Treasure Island Marina, and eventually back to the French team.

Fortunately there was only limited damage to the catamaran and as a show of their gratitude, Peyron’s team offered Tholke a ride around the Bay aboard the very AC45 that he had recovered. A few days later however, with the America’s Cup World Series regatta now underway, Peyron’s team was presented by Tholke’s legal representatives with a warrant from the US District Court to take the boat into custody as soon as the competition was completed.

Tholke’s attorney invoked a law from the 1800s claiming the rescue amounted to "a valid maritime salvage claim" and the owner of the 14-foot Boston Whaler would be entitled something in excess of $200,000 for his heroic, middle-of-the-night efforts. Talk about Treasure Island! You couldn’t make it up. Needless to say the French were gobsmacked, but whether they really will be smacked with the $200,000 salvage fee, we will have to wait and see.

Unfortunately for Energy Team, that was the only time they really managed to grab the headlines. Having won the light wind America’s Cup World Series regatta in Venice earlier in the year, Peyron’s performance in San Francisco was unremarkable. All the talk instead was about Ben Ainslie who has clearly learned a thing or two in the month since his debut outing at the helm of AC45, JP Morgan BAR Racing. After finishing second-to-last in the 11 boat fleet at the end of August, a month of hard training with the Oracle team paid off with victory in the opening race of the October regatta.

The nature of these high-speed reaching starts - towards a first turning mark just a few hundred metres away - makes consistency incredibly difficult to achieve. With all of the 11 boats jostling for position on a short line, the difference between a great start and terrible one is measured in microseconds.

You would not think that these kind of skills would play to the experience of Ben Ainslie, who has forged a stellar Olympic career out of sailing small, slow, singlehanded dinghies slightly faster than anybody else. The demands of skippering a crewed, high-speed AC45 are so very different, and yet what we saw here in San Francisco was Ainslie’s incredible ability to adapt himself to any sailing challenge. The 35-year-old scored 1,3,1,2,4,1 in the six opening heats of the seven-race fleet racing series, a consistency no one could match. He held a big points advantage over his rivals going into Super Sunday, when the final fleet race counts for big points. Instead of 12 points for the winner, the score gets ramped up to 40, putting a massive emphasis on doing well on the final day.

For the final big points race, Ainslie started uncharacteristically badly, although did a good job to pull through to fourth place by the finish. However, comeback of the week was by James Spithill and his Oracle crew who were dead last off the line but somehow managed to haul themselves through to first place by the finish. It was a breathtaking performance which gave them a last-gasp surge past Ainslie for overall victory. Both teams finished on equal points, but Spithill’s final race win gave him the title. Even so, Ainslie has moved from second last to second first in the space of a month, and was acknowledged to have been the class act of this regatta.

Then again, the resilience of Spithill’s crew was very impressive. After a ho-hum start to the regatta, in race five Spithill got a great start to be battling for the lead with Emirates Team New Zealand at the first turning mark. As the Oracle boat bore away and set the gennaker, her two bows dug in and the boat tripped over front-ways, with other teams such as Terry Hutchinson’s Artemis doing a great job of avoiding sailing into the back of the up-ended Oracle obstacle.

That was Spithill out of that race, but with the crew escaping without injury. The wing rig was not so lucky. “We broke most of the frames in the top of the wing, so we’ll repair them tonight,” Spithill said afterwards. “But that’s the beauty of these boats – they’re very, very strong. You can continue racing even if you do have broken frames.” And continue racing they did, finishing second in the next fleet race and rounding off an eventful day with victory in the match racing championship over the Kiwis.

Spithill knows that coping with adversity will be a key trait for any team looking to win next year’s America’s Cup with the fast but potentially fragile and unpredictable AC72 catamarans. So he was delighted with how his team bounced back from that capsize to go on to win both the match and fleet race championships. “The real champion teams are those that can face a little adversity and come back. It’s a sign of strength,” Spithill said. “And, the guys did exactly that – to go from the worst possible position, in the water, breaking a bit of the wing. But, we bounced back and onto the podium with a win.”Indeed it was Spithill who succeeded in knocking out his new team mate at Oracle, Ben Ainslie, in the match racing, and then edging past him for the fleet racing championship. Asked about being twice beaten by his team mate, Ainslie joked: “I’d like to say it was team orders! But it’s clear that they’re the top team at the moment.

“Jimmy and his team did a great job today and it’s a shame we weren’t able to match them. Unfortunately today didn’t go our way, it’s the nature of this racing with the points stacked on Super Sunday on the last race. You have to perform in that final race and Jimmy and his team to their credit did just that, and they won the race and the regatta. But overall we’re really happy with the week. We’ve made some massive improvements from the last regatta and there is still a lot we can improve on.”

Simon Daubney has won many America’s Cups alongside Russell Coutts and now the veteran trimmer is sailing with Ainslie. He was pleased with what he saw: “Ben did a great job at the start, we’ve done a lot of practice starting drills and he’s been going really, really good. That’s the thing that I keep getting impressed with by Ben, he learns something once and then he just nails it. He’s figured out a lot of stuff really quickly, and the training has been great for all of us, but really good for him.”

For a big team with grand ambitions, Artemis Racing have not made the impact they would have liked to over the past year and a half. But at this regatta Paul Cayard’s team really came good. Recently poached from Team Korea, Nathan Outteridge is looking like a smart buy for the Swedish team, the 26-year-old Olympic gold medallist in the 49er bringing some youth for 44-year-old skipper Terry Hutchinson to bounce off. Both Artemis boats reached the semi-finals of the match racing, although neither made it to the finals. Hutchinson came 3rd overall in the fleet racing with Outteridge a slightly disappointing 6th, having been in the top three earlier in the regatta.

Still, any slight disappointments in the Artemis camp will be as nothing to what the equally ambitious Italian team, Luna Rossa, must be feeling after a very sub-par performance. The usually reliable Chris Draper, who steered Luna Rossa Piranha to within just one point of a fleet racing victory a month earlier, finished inside the top five in just one of the six fleet races. This time Draper was 9th overall, at least beating the generally disorganised China Team. To be fair to China Team, ever changing their crew and not allowing much opportunity for improvement, the young Kiwi Phil Robertson did a great job with limited resources, finishing ahead of both Luna Rossa boats in the match racing.

In the fleet racing China Team ended up in a Luna Rossa sandwich, behind Piranha but ahead of Swordfish which finished in last place. The Swordfish skipper of the past year, Paul Campbell-James, stepped aside for Iker Martinez, a double Olympic medallist and three-time world champion in the 49er. The past year has been a torrid one for the talented Spaniard, who looked set to win the Volvo Ocean Race as skipper of Telefonica, until some poor results in the closing stages dropped them to 4th overall. Following up with a poor outing at the Olympics in Weymouth, where he came 12th, Martinez will be looking for redemption in his new role at Luna Rossa. He is widely expected to become the team’s skipper of the AC72 when it launches a few weeks from now, although the signs from this regatta suggest he has a lot of work to do. Can Martinez adapt as quickly as Ainslie? He’ll need to.

With a six-month hiatus until the next America’s Cup World Series event in Venice, Luna Rossa go into the winter break with a lot of questions to be asked. Their training partners Emirates Team New Zealand have not been firing on all cylinders in recent months either, although they at least have the excuse of being distracted by the launch of their AC72 catamaran. However, after the strong showing by Spithill and Ainslie at this event, it’s the defender who has the most reasons to be cheerful at the moment.

Are you signed up to Sailjuice Essential? It's our free monthly newsletter full of advice, tips and techniques from the world's best sailors. What's more, we'll send you a free copy of our ebook Sail Different – guaranteed to bring some fresh ideas to your sailing.

Click the button below and take your sailing to the next level!