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16 September 2004, 06:42 am
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Opening Act of the 32nd America's Cup

Traditionally, rival sailing teams have spent the intervening years between each edition of the America's Cup training in the utmost secrecy.
Design secrets and sailing styles were valuable property, too precious to reveal to the enemy. Ever since the skirt that shrouded the winged keel of Australia II in Newport 1983, this game of 'secret squirrel' has been part and parcel of America's Cup racing.

The first Act of the 32nd America's Cup has changed all that. With six teams sharing an open container village, and with some of the most significant and influential America's Cup Class boats on show for all to see, there was a breath of fresh air wafting through the regatta park in Marseille. The mystery 'hula' of NZL-82, the Team New Zealand boat which had so much trouble at the last Cup in Auckland that it only finished three of five races, was on open display. So too was SUI-64, Alinghi's unstoppable machine which dominated the Louis Vuitton Cup and went on to beat Team New Zealand 5-0. There are no secrets now, because every team knows that it has to modify its hulls and equipment to comply with the new ACC rule, Version 5, which comes into effect at the beginning of 2005.

The Marseille Louis Vuitton Act gave teams the first opportunity to square up to each other in competition since the end of the Cup over a year and a half ago. The first three days of fleet racing would be a chance to gauge their progress against each other. BMW ORACLE has been working hard for almost a year, and thus was marked out as the pre-event favourite, while the two French teams K-Challenge and LE DEFI had been training for less than a week. Simply making it to the start line for them was an achievement. But arguably the most eagerly awaited arrival in Marseille was that of Team Shosholoza, a group of young South African sailors who had never even set eyes on a Cup boat until this summer. With a mere 40 days of ACC sailing under their belts, setting up camp next to the superstars from other teams must have seemed a daunting prospect. Earlier this summer when they took receipt of their boat, the old Luna Rossa from the Prada campaign in 2000, they didn't even know how to hoist the mainsail. Now they were about to take on five other boats in a fleet race.

Then again, fleet racing in these 80-foot behemoths was just about as alien to everybody else. Even though the race that started it all 153 years ago was a fleet race around the Isle of Wight, the America's Cup has almost always been about one-on-one, the cut and thrust of the match race. Some sailors were eagerly looking forward to the new challenge, others quite apprehensive.

They would have been even more apprehensive had they known that Race 1 would take place in a choppy, gusty south-easterly of 15-19 knots. These demanding boats punish the slightest mistake or misunderstanding between any of the 17 crew, so handling an America's Cup class yacht in strong breeze is challenging enough without five other boats looking to make your life even more unpleasant. Alinghi picked up right where they left off in March 2003, winning the first race by 35 seconds from Emirates Team New Zealand. The far bigger surprise was that both these teams weren't beaten by BMW ORACLE, whose poor spinnaker drop at the leeward gate put her in serious danger of being pipped by one of the smaller teams.

However skipper Chris Dickson and his crack team recovered from that rare lapse to come in third ahead of K-Challenge, who were performing way ahead of expectation in their new second-hand boat, the old NZL-57. Shosholoza too, acquitted themselves very well. Just to finish a race in these conditions was an achievement. The South Africans were right in the thick of it, eventually finishing fifth ahead of a rusty and underpractised LE DEFI. Exploding yellow spinnakers were a problem for the French team skippered by Philippe PRESTI, and for them it would prove to be an unfortunate theme of the regatta.

The Principal Race Officer Peter REGGIO decided there had been enough excitement for one day, and cancelled the second scheduled race. Day 2 was even windier and produced more thrills and spills. It was a very inauspicious start for BMW Oracle, who was called over the line early and had to return to restart. This left Alinghi and Emirates Team New Zealand to move into match race mode up the first beat, but in doing so they failed to spot the threat from K-Challenge who hooked into a massive left-hand shift and rounded the windward mark in the lead. Indeed, they had neglected to notice the rapid recovery by BMW Oracle who had also gone left unnoticed, and who stormed in from the port layline in third place, sandwiched between Alinghi and the Kiwis. The Americans were right back in the race and they just got better and better, eventually taking a comfortable victory. While the start of their regatta had looked distinctly shaky, BMW Oracle never looked back after that remarkable comeback and the form team went on to win the final two races of the fleet race phase. These races were also held in strong winds that almost touched 30 knots. It was a photographer's dream.

After a day off to repair bruised boats and bodies, the regatta moved into its match racing phase. There were some intriguing matches, not least the eagerly awaited rematch between the Defender and Challenger of the America's Cup 2003. NZL-82 had fallen apart before a TV audience of millions 18 months ago, but this time it was Alinghi who suffered a breakdown when her genoa gave way up the first beat. This allowed Dean Barker to slip into a small lead which he held to the finish, avenging his 5-0 Cup defeat with a 13-second victory over the Swiss boat. Meanwhile, LE DEFI were going about their business in far more efficient manner than we had seen in the fleet racing. Some confident pre-start manoeuvring from Philippe PRESTI saw FRA-69 lead USA-76, the indomitable BMW ORACLE for the first two legs of their race. But eventually BMW ORACLE's French helmsman Bertrand PACÉ ground them down to steal a narrow lead. When LE DEFI's spinnaker went for its customary dunking down the final run the race was over. The spinnaker also caused them problems in their crucial match against fellow French team K-Challenge, but so adept had the foredeck crew become in replacing it that they successfully defended their lead and sailed home to their first victory of the regatta.

BMW ORACLE lived up to its billing as the pre-regatta favourite, winning all but its final match against Alinghi. Alinghi and Emirates Team New Zealand were only the smallest margin behind the victors and look ready to close that gap in the coming months. After a shocking start to the series, LE DEFI came on strong in the match race phase of the competition to come in fourth ahead of K-Challenge and Shosholoza.

The final of the America's Cup might seem a long way off in 2007, but Act 1 has brought the Cup alive. Sailors, spectators and the media were enthralled with the dual format of fleet racing and match racing. Marseille has been a huge learning curve for sailing teams and organisers alike, making Acts 2 & 3 next month in Valencia more eagerly anticipated than ever.
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