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America's Cup Rialto: January 23 - British make history in the Prada Cup

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ 23 Jan 15:04 GMT 20 January 2021
Sir Jim Ratcliffe (left) - INEOS Team UK - Waitemata Harbour - January 23, - Prada Cup - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell - Sail-World.com / nz

INEOS Team UK made America's Cup history on the Waitemata harbour Saturday evening when they qualified for the Finals of the Challenger Selection Series for the 36th America's Cup. In doing so, they became only the second British challenger to reach a Challenger Final in the 50 years that challenger selection series have been sailed.

The first was Victory '83 which was beaten by Australia II in the 1983 Louis Vuitton Cup.

While skipper Ben Ainslie might not have been to keen to talk about the past, at the Media Conference following the race and prize-giving, history is what the America's Cup is all about, and whether you join that elite group who have won the most prestigious trophy in sailing, or indeed if you can win the right to be the challenger.

The British have always had a proud tradition of exiting the America's Cup, usually at the semi-final stage, or earlier - despite having some outstanding sailing talent, strong marine industry support, and self-belief by the bucketful.

A month ago INEOS Team UK looked set to continue this well-trodden route, with a dismal, embarrassing performance in the three days of America's Cup World Series racing held in mid-December, capped off by trailing the America's Cup champions by 5,500 metres in the one race that was started in the Xmas Cup.

Whatever the Britannia got in her Christmas stocking, it certainly did the trick - with a truly remarkable performance turnaround in the Round Robins of the Prada Cup.

Today's race was a cracker, in a regatta where the standard of racing and excitement gets better with every passing race day.

After the capsize and withdrawal of American Magic's Patriot last Sunday, only one race was scheduled on each day of the weekend. If the Brits won on the Saturday they went through to the Final of the Prada Cup. Lose, and they had one more life on Sunday against Luna Rossa. Lose that and the Italians would go onto equal points and would win after application of a tiebreaker.

The capsize of Patriot, and rejigged series and points table was to the significant disadvantage of INEOS Team UK.

Had the rain squall not hit, Patriot not capsized, and been able to defend its lead on the final leg and win the race, then the Italians and Americans would have been on one point each, and the Brits on four points. For the Brits to get direct entry to the Challenger Final, they only had to win one of their four races from Round Robins 3 & 4. For either the US or Italian team to win through, they had to win all four of their races - a very big ask.

The single race scheduled for Saturday got under way after an 80 minute delay. Regatta Director, Iain Murray decided to wait for the funky SW breeze to settle down - and be consistent in direction, strength, and distribution across the course.

Today was the first occasion on which a new system for the teams to call a 15 minute timeout - up to three minutes before the start - was deployed.

About six minutes before the start, INEOS developed issues with the mainsail luff control, and its hydraulic ram. Ainslie left the time-out call for as long as possible, calling up the race committee just before the three minute time window to say that they were exercising their new right.

Although the issue couldn't be fixed completely the support team were able to get the ram locked in an acceptable position, that was able to pull some tension into the rig to flatten it off. The effect of the locked ram was that Britannia was set up to go upwind - and had to stay in the same mode for the three downwind legs. As it turned out that compromise was nearly the Brits undoing.

When the 15 minutes time-pit was up, the start proceeded in a 15kt SSW breeze. The two AC75's had a near equal start sailing to windward at speeds of 35-36kts.

There were said to be nine lead changes during the race, with INEOS grabbing the inside running at the first windward mark and hitting 50kts during the bear-away maneuver.

The Brits held the lead around Mark 2, before the Italian challenger split tacks at the bottom of Leg 3, grabbed the lead and stayed in front at Mark 4, until Ainslie returned the favour, got a shift, and rounded just 1 second ahead at the end of the fifth and penultimate leg.

The AC75's raced at 43kts in the 14kt breeze on intersecting courses on the final leg. When they came together, Ainslie as the give-way yacht, snuck through the narrowest of gaps on the final approach to the finish line. The umpires ruled, in a controversial call, that the port and starboard cross went the Brits' way by a handful of metres.

After the umpires' call went against them, it was all over for the Italians, and Ainslie sailed straight through to the finish, winning by a 33 second margin.

INEOS founder Jim Ratcliffe certainly picked his moment to come out on the course, having just emerged from a two-week COVID quarantine in time to catch for the race and win.

Certainly, it was all smiles and champagne sprays, when he stepped aboard Britannia, after a completely different performance situation than was the case a month ago. Chief designer Nick Holroyd also enjoyed a few quiet moments of vindication.

At the evening media conference, the issue of INEOS having a Complaint of Non-Compliance, was raised. Her offence was over the way a line was lead through a hole in the mainsail.

The issue was some days old, but nevertheless INEOS are vulnerable to a very pernicious Rule 78, which covers performance enhancing infringements and also those which are a technical breach of the letter of the rules, but have no effect on performance.

Ainslie claimed that for a second infringement non-speed enhancing draft rules prescribed an automatic disqualification. But that draconian penalty is not in the currently published rule. However, it is believed to be awaiting the sign-off of the Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, who are understood to be less than enamoured with the approach.

Bluntly, the class and event do not need this prescriptive approach to rule enforcement. It just reinforces the public perception that first hire into an America's Cup team is a lawyer.

The Cup is perceived as being litigious, self-indulgent and not particularly exciting.

It seems to be forgotten that this regatta is only taking place by a fortuitous set of circumstances. The issues being sorted out now, should have been resolved mid-2020 when two America's Cup World Series regattas were to be held in Cagliari and Portsmouth. Both were cancelled due to the COVID pandemic, and the learning opportunity was delayed until now.

The AC75 is a new class, to a restricted rule, and there are always going to be differences in AC75 measurement interpretation. These need to be worked through in a fair and reasonable manner, and without any prescriptive and unnecessarily extreme penalties harking back to an era when people were hung for poaching rabbits.

On a brighter note, American Magic skipper, Terry Hutchinson was able to report that Patriot, which was badly damaged in a capsize at the end of Round Robin 2, was making a good recovery. Emirates Team New Zealand had offered to do the external hull repair, using their build team and North Shore construction facility.

Hutchinson reported that the new hull section had been delivered half a day ahead of time, and that the rebuilt systems had been turned on, and Patriot

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