No one likes being handed a homework assignment that’s due the next day. Especially, you’d expect, when you’re the ilk of an Olympic gold medalist and an America’s Cup helmsman.
But the man at the wheel of Emirates Team New Zealand, Peter Burling, knows he has to suck it up – research, learn and rehearse – to come up with a better plan in the start-box on Bermuda’s Great Sound.
“We’re still making some pretty fundamental errors at the start-line that the guys will see clearly when we debrief,” says Ray Davies – sailing coach, back-up helmsman and the master handing out the homework. “We’ve got to follow through with a plan and absolutely nail these guys.”
Yes, Team NZ are up 2-1 over Artemis after the first day of the Louis Vuitton challenger final. And yes, it is the result at the finish-line that counts. But having the advantage at the start-line may ultimately decide who races Oracle for the America’s Cup next weekend.
So far, the start-line score is 3-0 in favour of Artemis skipper Nathan Outteridge – who’s firmly convinced that had he not dramatically flown over the side of his boat and into the Sound in the final race of the day, the Swedes would be leading the charge to be challenger.
Now, fixing up the start-box bungles has become “absolutely our main focus”, Davies says.
“We’re going really well around the course – the boat is fast, and our manoeuvres are quick and consistent. But it’s so much harder to win when you’re behind.”
Burling, just 26, is a genius in Olympic fleet racing, but he’s relatively new to this cat-eat-cat match-racing game. Davies insists there is no hesitation or reluctance to engage in any pre-start duel in an effort to avoid further smashes and crashes. “No, Pete’s attitude at the start is fine,” says Davies. “It’s just been our execution of the last 20 seconds of it.
“There’s enough aggression there. There have been starts where we’ve had them in the bank, and then let them get away in the last 20 seconds. We have time-on-distance issues – we’re not calculating the acceleration of the boat well enough, and finding ourselves late to the line on a few occasions.”
Despite his unceremonious departure off the side of the boat, which handed a vital win to Team NZ, Outteridge said it was his three victories at the start-line which would stick in his memory after today. The eight starting duels they’d had with former world match-racing champion Dean Barker and the Japanese in the past week had prepared them perfectly, he claimed.
Outteridge proudly reeled off his list of start-line triumphs: “Race one, foiling across the line with Team New Zealand completely in our bad air; race two, taking them off the course; then race three, being able to roll them on the reach. You know, that’s really powerful going into tomorrow.
“A few mistakes crept in after that, and we can easily eradicate them. But getting better at starting is quite a difficult thing to do.”
But Davies knows that Burling and his crew can do it. He’s seen the young helmsman learn from his mistakes through meticulous revision and training. “Pete is very intelligent and brilliant at recalling situations,” he says. “Match-racing is very different from Olympic sailing in many regards, but the real leveller is these boats. Even with all the match-racing experience in the world, handling these boats in the start box is another whole learning.”
At the day one debrief, Burling and the crew would watch the videos and go over the on-board data to see where they were going wrong. Before the next three races, scheduled to be raced in light airs tomorrow, they will put in a morning session sailing the boat, tuning the computer that helps them with time-on-distance, and working on their confidence in the start-box.
“There’s no frustration evident,” Davies says. “The guys are constantly looking for an opportunity to make up for it on the course. The amazing strength of these guys is their composure – their ability to keep cool is remarkable.”
But all of the Kiwi team know that relying on speed and tactics to overtake on the racecourse is something they cannot afford to do to beat Oracle, let alone make it through to the America’s Cup match.
They’ve proved in the first three races that they have plenty of speed and power, twice coming from behind to outmuscle Artemis. But it wasn’t simple.
It was a classic dog-fight on the water each time the two boats came together. While there was little between them in speed, there was a considerable difference in how the two helmsmen saw the day.
Burling was confident that Team NZ would have snatched the lead in race three even if Outteridge hadn’t fallen overboard. But the Australian was adamant that Artemis would now be leading 2-1 had he stayed dry.
Burling felt that his boat, Aotearoa New Zealand, was “going really fast”, even if it wasn’t configured perfectly for the changeable conditions. “We’re really happy to walk away with two wins,” he said.
Outteridge was also “really impressed” with the way his boat performed in a moderate breeze, considering they had chosen their longer, light air foils.
Getting the configuration right is a tough call. Once you choose the foils you head out to the racecourse with, there is no turning back. Team NZ selected their shorter foils, with longer wing tips – their “all-purpose” combination.
Artemis’ choice should have benefitted them in the opening race, when the wind was a shifty 10 knots. But they failed to handle their boat well. Under pressure from Burling, who shadowed them all the way upwind, Outteridge mistimed the tack and overstepped the mark, incurring a penalty. The New Zealanders had the legs on their opponents, finishing the race 47s ahead, with plenty of oil to burn.
Then, with the breeze up around 13 knots, Artemis sailed the perfect race in the second of the day, driving Team NZ away from the first mark, and sspending 100 percent of the race flying. Although the Kiwis matched Artemis in speed, they couldn’t find a passing lane, losing by 15s.
Team NZ seemed to have the edge across the line in the next race, but Artemis had the better angle to the first mark. This time, Burling chose not to follow Outteridge, sailing off on a split course at every opportunity, searching for the slightest sniff of a wind shift to give Team NZ an edge.
The gap between the two boats was negligible, but heading upwind for the last time, Artemis was less than a boatlength in front. Then Outteridge made his skid off the back and, without a contingency plan for being skipper-less, Artemis pulled the pin.
Outteridge’s exit came as he was sprinting across to the opposite hull during a tack in the closest battle. As the boat straightened in the turn, he lost his footing – and there’s nothing to grab onto on these slick, aerodynamic catamarans.
“Once I resurfaced, I looked up and made a little prayer and wished the guys best of luck, and hoped they made the cross and pulled off a couple of gybes. But it’s pretty hard when any person goes overboard to get these boats around the track. My main goal is to stay on the boat from now on,” he said.
The New Zealanders had no idea why the Swedes had slowed right down, until heading back up the run, they narrowly missed Outteridge bobbing in the water.
It’s a scenario Burling has found himself in – during training in Auckland – and either Glenn Ashby or Blair Tuke are prepared to take over the wheel should it happen again in Bermuda. But Burling was by no means smirking in victory at his old friend, Outteridge. “Honestly, you just get unlucky sometimes,” he said. “It shows you how hard everyone was pushing the boats.”
It was arguably the finest day of racing in these AC50 cats, with perhaps no one more enthralled than the waiting crew of Oracle. According to fellow crewman Joey Newton, they would have been watching the racing from “a special room – getting massages and eating ice cream”. As early as tomorrow they could know their Cup opponent, so they’ll be collecting every piece of information that they can get.