If you're having trouble picking a favourite for the America's Cup, rest assured that so are a lot of others, including many experts. The hurdle is deciding whether you like Team New Zealand's design or feel that Alinghi's sailing team is superior.
Therein lies the intriguing match-up of the 31st America's Cup: The technical genius of Defender Team New Zealand versus the sailing brilliance of Challenger Alinghi. In a game that has long favoured design excellence, it's possible that in this series a better sailing team may be able to defeat a faster boat.
That's not to say that Alinghi's design team and boat, nor Team New Zealand's crew are sub-standard. Both excel in their own right. In SUI-64, Alinghi's designers have produced a solid, all-around performer that dominated the Louis Vuitton Cup with a 26-4 overall record. Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker won the match-race worlds in 2000. He's also won three other times and finished runner-up twice in 11 appearances over the last two years.
On the eve of New Zealand's second defence of the Auld Mug, however, it's clear that design ingenuity will be severely tested by crafty sailing skills, making it extremely hard to predict a winner.
Will the hula, Team New Zealand's hull appendage that works to stretch waterline length, be a help or a hindrance? If it's a superior element, will the match-racing expertise of Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth overcome a speed disadvantage?
Alinghi technical director Grant Simmer said that they've oriented their boat for upwind performance. Throughout the Louis Vuitton Cup, SUI-64 was always good upwind. It led at the first windward mark 23 times and won 22 of those races. It also won three times after trailing at the first windward mark.
"We've focused on improving our upwind performance without sacrificing downwind,"
said Alinghi pit man Josh Belsky. "We feel comfortable if we can get ahead, a 10-second lead at the windward mark is plenty. If you've got a faster boat behind you, it's got to be a lot faster to get around you. There are ways you can slow a race down and effectively become a speed bump."
Alinghi has improved its speed since the Louis Vuitton Cup by modifying its bow slightly. They created a sharper angle between the knuckles to try and shorten the waterline length and gain a few extra square metres of sail area.
"We gained about 2 square metres of extra sail area,"
said Simmer. "It's mainly for downwind performance. Team New Zealand has a lot of sail, that's why people think they'll be fast downwind."
Simmer feels that Team New Zealand will still have a sail area advantage on the order of 10 to 12 square metres downwind.
Since winning the America's Cup in 1995, Team New Zealand has been the acknowledged technological leader in the game. Their NZL-32 forged new thinking in stiff masts and flat sails in '95. Their NZL-60 in 2000 was a development of that line of thinking. Both times New Zealand won the Match by 5-0 scorelines.
Now, Team New Zealand designers Tom Schnackenberg, Mike Drummond and Clay Oliver have produced the hula, and it shows how they approach the design game. They decide on the design they want and then figure out how to fit it in the rule.
"(The hula's) the solution to two things we want to have: a nice low transom and a sectional area curve we want,"
"We think we understand the design game,"
said Schnackenberg, a 26-year veteran of the America's Cup. "If we understand it as well as we think we do, then we should have a little edge. But it may well be that the boats are quite competitive, even though they're quite different."
History says that this match should be a blowout. Since the thrilling 1983 Match, which Challenger Australia II won 4-3 over Defender Liberty, becoming the first challenger to win the America's Cup in 132 years, the Match has been very one-sided. The five Matches since then have produced a combined score of 20-1.
Speaking of historical references, that '83 Match might be a good barometer for what's about to occur. Twenty years ago the wing-keeled Australia II and plodder Liberty had their sweet spots.
Schnackenberg, who was sail co-ordinator for the Australian team in '83, noted that Australia II was a faster boat in very light conditions and in heavy airs. Liberty had pace in the medium stuff. NZL-82 and SUI-64 might have similar disparities.
"We don't know yet what conditions one boat may be better than the other,"
said Schnackenberg. "We would like to think our boat was better all the time and if it is we'll be very happy. But unfortunately life doesn't always deal it out that way. And we may find that over a range of conditions we have our day and in other conditions the other boat has its day, in which case we could be in for a very exciting series that takes a while to resolve."
In order for Team New Zealand to win, however, Barker and crew will have to beat Coutts and company five times. That's a daunting task considering that Coutts has a 70-5 on-the-water record since becoming skipper of Team New Zealand for the 1995 challenger.
More than that, Coutts is 9-0 in the America's Cup Match since 1995. If he can win the first race of the 31st Match he'll move past Charlie Barr for the most wins without a loss in the America's Cup.
Barr won nine consecutive races between 1899 and 1903. For a sailor as acutely aware of America's Cup history as Coutts is, that's a golden carat to chase.
Whoever wins the first race gets the psychological edge in the series. In the 10 match-race rounds of Louis Vuitton Cup 2003 (from the quarter finals through the finals), the team that won the first race won nine of the series.
That trend may not continue in the Cup Match, but it'll be fascinating to watch the sailing brilliance of Alinghi against the design genius of Team New Zealand.
The XXXI America's Cup Match Starts tomorrow, Saturday 15 February. It is a best of nine race series with two race day's over each weekend, and racing on alternate days during the week.