It was an incredibly difficult day on the Gulf of Valencia for the first Fleet Races in the host city of the 32nd America's Cup.
Conditions looked great early, with a nice Westerly 12-14 knot breeze streaking white caps across the water. But once racing started, on time at 12:40, the first race was a minefield for the tacticians and strategists with many pitfalls across the race course in the form of wind shifts in both speed and direction.
Emirates Team New Zealand, fresh off a win in the Louis Vuitton Act 2, and the French LE DEFI team were the best at making sense of the conditions and finished in first and second, while the highly touted Team Alinghi and BMW ORACLE had a harder time, coming home in fourth and fifth place.
In the second race, the conditions were even tougher. The wind died completely on the second lap of the course, as a weak sea breeze killed off the gradient wind. The very light new wind came from nearly the opposite direction, so the final run to the finish became a beat upwind, complete with tacking for most of the teams. This time it was Alinghi who managed to just squeeze ahead of the Kiwis at the finishing line. The French K-Challenge was close behind in third place. For a time it seemed as though the race might be abandoned with none of the teams finishing in the 40 minute leg time limit. But in the event, Alinghi finished with a full 10 minutes to spare, just two-seconds in front of NZL 81.
The results leave Emirates Team New Zealand clear ahead on the leaderboard with a two-point cushion over Alinghi, and Luna Rossa two further points in arrears. Both French teams had a good day and hold fourth and fifth, while BMW ORACLE Racing, the winners of the Marseille Louis Vuitton Act, are in unfamiliar territory down in sixth position. The South African Team Shosholoza also had a good day, finishing with boats behind it in both races, for the first time in Valencia.
Racing continues with two Fleet Races scheduled for Friday afternoon.
Valencia Louis Vuitton Act 3 - Fleet Race 1
It was a special sight, seeing eight America's Cup Class yachts charging at the starting line to begin the final Act of the 2004 season at the America's Cup. Team Alinghi, mid-line seemed to be a nose ahead of the opposition, with K-Challenge hard left at the pin and +39 on the right. BMW ORACLE streaked up the left side of the race course, and led around the top mark with Emirates Team New Zealand close behind. Luna Rossa, which trailed the entire fleet at the start, was still deep in the fleet at the first mark. The Italians gybed immediate around the offset mark however and the tactic worked with Luna Rossa streaking down the right hand side of the race course, and leading BMW ORACLE by one-second through the leeward gate. While BMW ORACLE and Luna Rossa elected to take the left side upwind, Emirates Team New Zealand went out far to the right. With LE DEFI following them, the Kiwis picked up an enormous lift on their side of the course, and rode it into a big lead, with the French team the only other to capitalise. While it was a good first race for LE DEFI, their French cousins on K-Challenge weren't as fortunate and trailed the fleet across the finish line.
Valencia Louis Vuitton Act 3 - Fleet Race 2
As with the first race, this contest began in a good breeze, a 10-12 knot Southwesterly, and with plenty of action on the starting line. With Alinghi and Emirates Team New Zealand mid line, K-Challenge skipper Thierry PEPONNET repeated his trick of starting left at the pin, while Shosholoza and BMW ORACLE engaged in some aggressive tactics near the Committee Boat. The South Africans came off much better in the exchange, with BMW ORACLE assigned a penalty by the on-the-water Umpires. By the time the Americans had completed their penalty turn, most of the fleet was heading well upwind of them and BMW ORACLE would be in last place around the windward mark. While the first lap of the course set the table for this race, the real action came in slow motion on the final run to the finish, when the wind completely died before building gently from the opposite direction. K-Challenge, which had rounded the second windward mark in third position was able to carry its spinnaker longer than Team Alinghi, and Emirates Team New Zealand ahead of it, and at one point appeared to be leading on the leg, although it couldn't hold its advantage and was eventually beaten to the finish. Team Alinghi beat Emirates Team New Zealand in a slow motion, photo-finish, with the boats overlapped, and the Swiss boat just a fraction ahead. Luna Rossa and Team Shosholoza also made nice gains on this leg at the expense of BMW ORACLE and LE DEFI, while +39 had the worst time of it, coming home in last place for the race, and on the overall points table.
The Valencia Louis Vuitton Act 3 is scored on a high-point system, with the winner of the race receiving eight points, second position seven points, and so on down to the last place boat, which is awarded one point.
Team Name: (Total Points) Race 1 2
Emirates Team New Zealand (15) 1 2
Team Alinghi (13) 4 1
Luna Rossa (11) 3 4
LE DEFI (9) 2 7
K-Challenge (7) 8 3
BMW ORACLE Racing (7) 5 6
Team Shosholoza (6) 7 5
+39 (4) 6 8