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18 October 2002, 04:35 pm
The Umpires Game
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©Franck Socha/Louis Vuitton

America's Cup

Two fundamentals of match-racing are identifying your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and then managing your risk-to-reward on the racecourse.
The pre-start and first five minutes of a match are often determinant in the outcome. If one boat is faster or more manoeuvrable than the competition it will take a less risky approach in the pre-start in the belief it can sail away on the racecourse.

Lacking that speed or manoeuvrability a boat might turn to the rules to gain an advantage. If cunning enough you can lure your faster opponent into a penalty. Then you hope to stay close around the track and pass when they perform their 270-degree penalty turn.

There's little doubt this year's Louis Vuitton Cup fleet is highly competitive. Skippers and helmsmen like Russell Coutts, Peter Gilmour, Rod Davis, Peter Holmberg and James Spithill have earned aggressive reputations on the match-race circuit by using the rules to their advantage, whether faster or slower.

So were these devotees to the match-racing discipline and others passive or aggressive in Round 1? The answer might be neither. You could say teams were crying wolf in Round 1.

According to International Jury statistics, 32 green flags were flown by the on-water umpires in response to requests for penalties during the 35 completed matches of Round 1. The umpires issued eight penalties, three for right-of-way infractions and five umpire-initiated.

"Green flags don't mean much. Probably a lot of them are tongue in cheek," said Chief Umpire and International Judge Bryan Willis (GBR).

The surprisingly high rate of green flags, 80 percent, is contrary to what is found on the match-race tour, noted umpire Luciano Giacomi (ITA), who compiled the statistics. Usually there are far more penalties than green flags.

Giacomi also said that an estimated 90-percent of the calls were for proper course. He attributed it to different boat optimisation and the different angles associated with using an asymmetric spinnaker versus a symmetric spinnaker."Usually on the tour we have one or the other, and not the option," said Giacomi.

As for the most flag-happy team, the GBR Challenge is the clear winner. Twenty "Y" flags were flown in matches involving the GBR Challenge, although not all by them. Figures released by the umpires are not attributed to individual boats, just races.

By flying code flag Y, a red and yellow striped flag, competitors are requesting the umpires rule on a perceived rules infraction. The umpires either green flag it, meaning no penalty, or fly a blue or yellow flag, corresponding to the infringing yacht.

France's le Défi AREVA and Oracle BMW Racing were the next most active with 14 Y flags in their matches. Half of each team's total came in their match against GBR Challenge.

The French were the most penalised team in Round 1. Two of the three penalties issued went against le Défi. One of those penalties came in desperation during the Flight 9 match against Mascalzone Latino, a match that the French lost near the finish after leading down the run.

"We thought we were overlapping and they had to keep clear because they were the windward boat, so I just came up a little bit, but it was still a normal course," le Défi skipper Luc Pillot said after the match. "There was contact and the umpires decided we were wrong, so we got a penalty. But at this point in the match there was no other solution, so we tried it."

Le Défi also received four of the five umpire-initiated penalties. Two came in the crew's end-of-round match against Team Dennis Conner, when it couldn't start the match because its forestay had broken. Another was issued for touching a rounding mark and the final for failing to take a red-flag penalty immediately, as required.

There were also two red flag protests, the more traditional form of protesting where a jury is convened and evidence presented. One was thrown out while the other, the Race Committee versus Alinghi Team, was upheld. Seven times a competing boat flew a protest flag on the racecourse only to withdraw it at the finish.

While it may seem like a high incidence of green flags, the sailors prefer it that way. During debriefing sessions with the umpires the competitors have asked for greater latitude interpreting how close they get on the course.

"The teams don't want us to penalize unless there's a real risk of collision," said Willis. "When we see the rigs pass within 3 metres, that's close in these conditions. The competitors say they can get that close so they don't want to be penalised."

The teams, however, are safety conscious. If the rigs are less than 2 metres apart the umpires must penalise, according to Giacomi.

The syndicates could be seen as avoiding confrontation due to the importance of every race. The aim is to finish in the top four. A top four placing ensures you live to fight another day after your first loss in the quarterfinal or semifinal rounds, when matches are best-of-seven against a selected opponent. A higher ranking also allows you to choose your opponent in the quarterfinals.

Willis feels there was a fair amount of risk in the first round, but with caution towards the next round robin. "Now the teams know where they stand. If you're weaker you might take a risk, provided you know you're not going (to be first eliminated). You might take more risk trying to get a penalty," Willis said.

Sean McNeill/ISAF News Editor
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