First America’s Cup AC40 races: France and New Zealand share wins

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At the America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta in Villanova light winds made for a frustrating day of low-riding rather than foiling for the AC40s, but Day 1 still delivered some surprises. Helen Fretter was watching from the water

It was a day of firsts in Villanova, some 30 miles along the coast from Barcelona today: the first races in the 37th America’s Cup cycle, the first ‘proper’ races in the new AC40 one-design class, and the first chance to see how the new teams – and new crew combinations – compare with one year to go until the Cup proper.

This first America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta event has a slightly different feel to the usual Cup events – something of a matinee performance. The practice races earlier this week were a chance for teams and organisers to iron out a few teething problems, while the event also had a pleasing air of informality – there are no paid for spectator stands, instead racing is free to view from the beach, and the team bases are equally matched marquees without any glossy hospitality quarters.

Although today began hot and still, by lunchtime the flags were fluttering well and the 200-plus Pati Catala dinghies (a classic local design that has no tiller or rudder, but is instead steered by trimming the mainsail and shifting bodyweight) were racing off the beach for a special celebration regatta in moderate breezes.

Coming off the foils can see an AC40’s boat speed halved compared to a boat in flight mode.

At the pre-start for Race 1, all teams were burning around on their AC40s with ease. The on the water view from a team chase RIB was a frankly eye-opening indication of the closing speeds that can occur with six foiling AC40s in confined water. They may be just 40ft, but with some teams reporting hitting over 50 knots in practice sails (see Matt Sheahan’s column in the current issue of Yachting World for more), these are not toothless mini-models, but a genuinely impressive class in their own right.

When there’s breeze, that is…

America’s Cup AC40s first race

Sadly by the start of Race 1 the wind had dropped, and with around 7-8 knots at the gun few teams were positioned for a clean foiling start. With just 1 minute 40 seconds to go the French Orient Express Racing Team had dropped off their foils and were sluggish in the water, but recovered impressively to cross the line at speed on port, and keep going, maintaining flight and pace to round the top mark in first.

Close behind them was Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, who traded places for 1st place as the breeze began to fade and the AC40s came off their foils onto a low-riding displacement mode. The remainder of the race was characterised by the curious sight of crews climbing out of their stream-lined, aero-efficient cockpits to stand on the bow to lift the AC40 transoms out of the water.

With a shortened course the leading French and Italian pair crawled down to the finish line, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli with right of way on starboard. But as the boats made their final gybes the Italians picked up a penalty for their foil coming too close to the French. This gave the French Orient Express Racing Team the first ever event win in the AC40s. In a final twist, it turned out that Luna Rossa had started incorrectly and were DNS.

The French team went into this race as the outsiders, having only taken delivery of their AC40 in mid-August. They were, unsurprisingly, delighted with taking the first win.

Orient Express Racing Team trimmer Jason Saunders commented after racing: “Yeah, we’re surprised. The training hadn’t been going as well as that.

“We’d actually been struggling a lot in those [light] conditions and we’ve spent a lot of time analysing the data, analysing the footage that we’ve got, and we’re just super happy for the whole team, because it’s a massive team effort to be able to help us to progress. And today we were able to put that into place and we showed that we certainly improved. Once we’re up and foiling, we’re able to match with the best. That’s pretty positive for day one.”

Low riding mode

With a fading breeze racing the start of Race 2 was delayed, and it looked very likely that racing would be abandoned for the day. However, by 5pm some boats had headed to the top of the course and were foiling unassisted, with other teams using their chase RIBs to tow their AC40s to get them up to speed before casting off in flight mode, and the race committee quickly followed suit by setting off Race 2.

The start area, however, was still in a patch of much lighter wind, and one by one the AC40s fell off the foils in the pre-start. All but one, in fact, with Alinghi holding flight mode to cross the line on foils and pull away in a completely different race. Behind them the French made another good start with INEOS Britannia behind, both firmly stuck in low-rider mode.

Halfway up the first beat, however, Emirates Team New Zealand got back up on foils and, racing at twice the boat speed of all the other teams (Alinghi also having dropped back down), essentially sailed rings around them, approaching the top mark for the final time while other had barely rounded it for the first.

Emirates Team New Zealand was noticeably able to get their AC40 foiling earlier when other teams were in low-rider displacement mode at the America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta in Villanova.

Getting back on the foils

One observation I heard in Villanova, which seemed confirmed by today’s races, is that Emirates Team New Zealand are often seen to foil first, in 5-6 knots of breeze, with other teams needing 1, 2 or more knots extra to get back up onto the foils mid-race.

For teams struggling to foil, the alternative is to sail in VMG displacement mode, sailing the most direct route to the mark. With shortened races, such as today, this also gives the advantage of protecting their position on the course as teams are scored according to their placing on the water if they do not finish the race.

There seemed to have been some confusion over how these points were awarded for those watching the TV commentary, but there was no doubt the teams were racing for rankings on the water no matter how they would be finished (a bit like a Whiskey flag to award tail enders in a dinghy fleet with a result).

The AC40 crews using body weight to get their boats moving when not in foiling mode. Photo: ACEM

Ben Ainslie, skipper and Principal of INEOS Britannia, explained that it’s a balancing act between knowing when to best sail as fast as you can in displacement mode, and when to try and get back onto foils:

“We were actually not in that bad shape sailing around in displacement mode [in the second race]. We were in second place, saw New Zealand had go back on foils, decided to try and pop up, but we didn’t make it and got overtaken.”

“You got to make sure you’ve got some runway, you’re not too close to the boundary going into it. Then you’re trying to figure out is there enough wind, you’re looking at the wind speed on the boat, also looking at the wind on the water and what the other boats are doing, have they got up or not?

“And of course, there’s a lot of technique in it. The Kiwis are very good at it – kind of not surprisingly, they got great sailors and they spend a lot of time in the boat. So, yeah, we’re certainly in catch up mode on that.

“It’s a lot of things. It’s to do with the setup of the boat, of course, the aero side of things, but also the foils. And then, like any other boat, really, it’s just very subtle. We all know how difficult sailing any boat in light airs is. It’s a very subtle technique: when to trim on the sails, when to try and accelerate and when to try and lift the boat out of the water, drive, the pitch of the boat. It’s really dynamic and takes a lot of choreography.”

Does that stance look similar to the one above? The local Pati Catala vintage catamaran dinghies are sailed with body weight rather than a rudder. Photos: ACEM

Today might not have showcased the AC40s’ real potential on their debut, but it did prove that the Kiwis are not actually invincible, and that no team – even the least experienced – can be discounted.

Tomorrow there’s a more solid breeze forecast, and bigger sea state forecast, which is likely to deliver the teams a whole new set of boat handling challenges.

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