In the most dramatic race of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals, Oracle BMW Racing took the battle right to the Swiss Alinghi team and showed that in moderate breezes and flat water the San Francisco boat is very competitive.
But, the San Francisco-based team picked up two penalties in the race and eventually trailed the Swiss boat across the finish line by 61 seconds to post a 3-0 score in the best-of-nine series.
Encouraging for the Oracle BMW Racing team was that the distinct speed Alinghi had shown in the choppy water of the first two races was not evident in the flat water conditions today.
Racing took place in 10-12 knot northerlies, which settled in after a two-and-a-half hour wait for breeze. The strategy on USA-76, skippered by Chris Dickson, was to keep it close and wait for the downwind legs to force the action. The first three mark roundings saw USA-76 trail by never more than 13 seconds, providing a launching pad for an aggressive downwind attack on the second run.
The action was fast and furious as the two yachts engaged in attack and counter attack, with the umpires kept busy coping with aggressive luffing from both crews. The umpires flew 10 green flags, but eventually USA-76 emerged carrying a Rule 17 penalty (sailing above proper course) after hitting the transom of the Swiss Alinghi yacht.
Everything now depended on the American crew being able to build enough of a lead to complete their 270 degree penalty in time to retain their lead over the finish line. At the line, they threw the boat into the penalty turn, but copped a second penalty when they hit the pin end of the line as Alinghi swept past to take the victory gun.
LOUIS VUITTON CUP FINAL
ALINGHI (SUI-64) BEAT USA-76 - DELTA 01:01
Alinghi leads best-of-nine finals over Oracle BMW Racing by 3-0
Skipper Chris Dickson and his Oracle BMW Racing crew came in to the pre-start on the favoured starboard tack, but Alinghi's Russell Coutts pulled off a masterful start, positioned upwind of USA-76, with pace, on the favoured right hand side.
For the first time in the Louis Vuitton Cup Final, Oracle BMW skipper Chris Dickson didn't take the helm after the start gun, allowing Peter Holmberg to drive the first weather leg. Although Coutts converted his impressive start into a controlling position, USA-76 kept it close and rounded the top mark just 8-seconds back.
Holmberg immediately ratcheted up the pressure by diving down around the mark and setting up slightly lower and inside Alinghi. Both crews can be commended on beautiful sets under pressure conditions and the boats started speeding downwind just a few metres apart. A poor spinnaker drop on USA-76 gave Alinghi a bit more breathing space at the mark-rounding. Early in the second beat, the Swiss enjoyed a solid two length lead after being overlapped just a couple of minutes before.
Alinghi maintained a lead of 12-seconds around the second top mark with USA-76 chasing hard a couple of lengths behind. After the first gybe, Oracle BMW set up nicely to windward and started to roll over Alinghi. Coutts luffed, and Holmberg responded, but the American boat was eventually able to break through to weather and make the pass. A flurry of Y-flag protests followed, with Dickson claiming Alinghi was sailing above its proper course, but found no sympathy from the umpires.
When Alinghi eventually gybed, Oracle BMW gybed to leeward, and, now holding luffing rights, immediately attacked the Swiss boat. The action was extremely close and Dickson and Holmberg made at least two very strong attacks with Alinghi desperately avoiding contact. No penalties were awarded with Alinghi going on to break the overlap. The frustration on the American boat was evident and Holmberg and Dickson attacked one last time, the bow on USA-76 coming up and hitting the stern scoop on Alinghi. The umpires penalised Oracle BMW for violating Rule 17 (sailing above their proper course).
Dickson and Holmberg recovered from that to sail Alinghi out to the starboard gybe layline before gybing inside and rounding ahead to make the pass, albeit at the cost of a penalty. USA-76 led Alinghi around a mark for the first time in this series, with Alinghi 8-seconds behind.
On the final beat, needing to earn enough room to off load the penalty, Oracle BMW Racing made a nice little gain on the left side early in the beat, and covered well to stretch away a few crucial boatlengths. USA-76 made two fewer tacks than Alinghi, and that also added precious seconds to what would be a 28-second lead around the final weather mark.
The final run was an incredible test for both boats, with Alinghi trying to close up enough to make a penalty turn impossible for their opponents. "This is all about velocity, sailing our boat," skipper Chris Dickson told his crew at the start of the leg.
While the Oracle BMW crew strained for every metre it could find, Alinghi, benefiting from stronger wind behind, followed on its trail. As the finish line approached, the Swiss crew was able to claw in a few more metres to put more pressure on the American crew.
At the finish line, the jib went up and the gennaker came down cleanly. Holmberg spun the boat around the pin end of the finish line, and with Alinghi charging down under full sail, USA-76 initially looked as though it might just make it. But after tacking, and needing to bear away to cross the finish line the boat stalled out and Alinghi swept past to take the gun. Meanwhile, Oracle BMW drifted onto the buoy marking the pin end of the line and copped another penalty for hitting the mark.
The end result, a 1:01 win to Alinghi and a 3 - 0 lead in the series.