Alinghi fuelled with confidence during initial contest
by Hans Leuenberger
(spg) Swiss syndicate Alinghi has underlined its bid to come home with the America's cup after a successful start in the opening rounds of the Louis Vuitton Cup. However, skipper Russell Coutts warns that we shouldn't count our chickens before they've hatched
Coutts was both satisfied and self-critical at the same time after the two-day rest period following the double round robin. With no detectable undertone, he described the preliminary rounds - which have finished with Alinghi at the top of the leader board - as nothing more than a playground squabble. For him, the real Challenger's Cup only begins with the quarter final duels.
In the initial warm-up phase, the favourites were not forced to put all their cards on the table. There is still plenty of time left to practice automated handling techniques or make more substantial adjustments to the set-up of the boats. Prada Challenge, for example, who will face Alinghi in the quarter finals next Tuesday, gave their yacht ITA-74 a new bow within the space of five days.
Confidence in the boat
However, definite tendencies are beginning to emerge, and Coutts confirms: I have found confidence in our ship". From a materials point of view, the Swiss seem to be on a level peg with the competition, and in some aspects maybe even one step ahead. SUI-64 has shown good all-round qualities and has therefore emerged as the clear leader, as the round robin races were held in varying wind conditions. Prada Challenge, for example, performed well in light winds, while Oracle (US) really came into its own when winds were stronger.
However, the Alinghi syndicate has yet to deploy their secret weapon in the battle for the America's Cup: SUI-75, which until now has floated idle in Auckland harbour and has been used only for training purposes. Past experience has shown that during the New Zealand summer in the second half of February, when title defenders New Zealand will pitch themselves against the challenger, gentle winds usually prevail in the Hauraki Gulf. This is when the second Swiss yacht, more favoured for light winds, will be brought into play.
As with Formula One cars, the slightest tweak can make all the difference to a yacht's performance. The teams work in close cooperation with designers in an ongoing attempt to make improvements. Every nut and bolt can be crucial, and technical details are shrouded in secrecy. The boats are often only unveiled when they are on open water; the underwater hull - the part of the ship below the waterline including the rudder and the keel - should remain shielded from the prying eyes of your competitors at all times.
As far as the physical stability of the yachts is concerned, the Swiss have also had their fair share of mishaps. During the last round of regattas, for example, a spinnaker pole broke and defects occurred in some sails and winches. With a maximum allowance of 45 sails, the Swiss should have plenty to last them until the end of the championship, but the slightest technical problem during a race can quickly lead to defeat. We still need to make improvements in this area," explained 40-year-old New Zealander Russell Coutts, "as the yacht will be pushed much more to the limit in the coming regattas than it was in the first round robin."
Tried and tested rotation principle
The rotation principle has had a large part to play in successful teamwork at Alinghi, with all 32 crew members already having been called into action on the 16-man boat. After Alinghi suffered a defeat at the hands of OneWorld in the second regatta, Coutts is said to have put his foot down and demanded more professionalism from his team. The perfectionist succeeded in honing crew handling over the course of the 16 races. The ambitious New Zealander left nothing to chance: each race was analyzed in meetings and any improvements introduced by competitors examined and, where appropriate, adopted by the team.
Alinghi is also setting new standards. On the downwind course, all 16 crew members sat next to each other on a few square meters. Concentrating the weight in this way seems to correlate perfectly with the design of the hull and produce some incredible speeds. Coutts, who won the America's Cup for New Zealand the last two times it was held in 1995 and 2000, has already proved himself to be the ideal link between the crew on the deck and the designers behind the computers.
New Zealand critical
The image of the Swiss crew in sailing-mad New Zealand is, understandably, not the best, as Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth are regarded to have lured away the key figures on Black Magic" and therefore bought in lots of expertise. Following the successful debut of the Swiss syndicate, opinion is rising that the America's Cup should remain an event with national crews. Others, meanwhile, see Bertarelli's shopping spree" as vindication that New Zealand in the world's number one sailing nation.