Little could beat the farewell to Te Rehutai as she left Emirates Team New Zealand’s base to the deep booming of the pūkāea trumpet and a haunting karakia as they finally left to defend the America’s Cup.

But four hours later, their rivals Luna Rossa won the battle of the welcome home – a cacophony of air horns blasting mixed with cheers and whistles of their elated family and team-mates, flying the banner “Forza Luna Rossa!”  

“We can feel the passion of the Italians pushing our boat forward,” dual helmsman Francesco Bruni declared.

If there was a competition for the most fervid following on day one of the America’s Cup on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, you’d call it a draw. And that’s also how it stands – 1-1 – on the Cup match scoreboard.

The defenders stormed to victory in the first race of this regatta, almost giving life to the waterfront rumours they had a generally quicker boat than the challengers (the Italians reckon they heard the Kiwis were 10 knots faster than them in everything but light airs; they never believed it, of course).

But Luna Rossa – who’ve been working on their composure, as well as their speed, going into this match – launched a reimonta, a comeback, in the second race that will have Kiwi fans quivering a little in their red socks.

From what we saw on Wednesday, very little separates these two AC75 speed machines in performance; it’s too early to tell if one will make a leap forward faster than the other.

But Jimmy Spithill, Luna Rossa’s co-driver who became the helmsman with the most wins in Cup history with his 15th race victory on Wednesday, put it quite matter-of-factly afterwards.

“The fastest boat will win this America’s Cup. End of story,” he said.

And, no doubt, the team who make the least cock-ups.

Luna Rossa return to their Auckland waterfront base after squaring up the America’s Cup match on day one. Photo: Suzanne McFadden. 

Ultimately the 1-1 scoreline comes down to two simple mistakes – both before the boats even crossed the start-line. Italy made theirs by approaching the line too early in the first race, New Zealand was guilty of being too late launching their attack in the second.

And it was one of those racecourses on the Hauraki Gulf where the boat that got in front at the start had the advantage all the way around.

But Team NZ proved they’re quick, hitting 51 knots of speed, before almost chasing down Luna Rossa on the final run to the finish line of Race 2, losing by only 7s. “Another lap and we might have had a good chance,” said Burling.

In just his second America’s Cup, Burling pointed out it’s almost three months since Team NZ have raced against another sailboat – instead of 1500 horsepower outboards – and they’re still “chipping off a little bit of rust”. The team were happy, he said repeatedly, with the way the boat was sailing.

With Thursday a rest day – perhaps the only day’s break from now until the end of the match – it will be a day of reflection for both teams.

As keen as they both are to get back racing after a delayed start courtesy of another Auckland lockdown, both want to revisit where they went wrong, how they could have done it better, and what’s going on with their rivals.

Race director Iain Murray says the teams have discussed making next Tuesday a lay day. Now it seems the match could well stretch that far. 

Team NZ skipper Peter Burling was keen to lock horns with Luna Rossa’s dual helmsmen in the day one pre-starts. Photo: America’s Cup. 

With Auckland still in Level 2 on Friday, racing will return to one of the two outer courses, where the breeze is more stable but doesn’t create passing lanes. In the last 14 races there’s only been one lead change after the first cross, so starting will again be critical.

A possible move to Level 1 on the weekend could see racing on the favoured inner harbour courses. That’s where the breeze gets tricky, bouncing off all the Waitematā Harbour landmarks, and that could be when we could see more lead changes.

On race day one, Murray chose Course E – between Auckland’s eastern beaches and Browns Island – because it was best for the 10-14 knot north-westerly winds and the safety of spectators.

By 9am the gleaming superyachts were already filling with guests for the 4pm start. Murray predicted the spectator fleet would well exceed the 700 craft we’d seen during the best days of the Prada Cup. 

And he was right – 984 boats were out there soaking up the rare atmosphere of an America’s Cup match. The VIP and hospitality boats alone had grown threefold, with 60 craft getting ringside seats.

Then the crowds began to arrive on foot in the America’s Cup Village, even though there were no big screens or dock-out show because of Level 2.

By noon, the village was buzzing. Crowds forgot the 2m Covid-19 rule and jammed up against the Team NZ fence to clap as Te Rehutai was wheeled out of the shed.

It was the Italian boat which nudged out of the harbour first while the Team NZ crew were being sent off to battle by local iwi, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei (and a random cow bell).

Te Rehutai rolls out of the shed, in the shadow of Team NZ’s victorious 2000 boat, Black Magic. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

When the boats left, the village became a ghost town, but the bars along the waterfront were packed. There was applause and cheering at every mark when Team NZ were in front, and drumming of tables and singing when the Kiwis won. It was, as you’d expect, more subdued in race two.

Luna Rossa had expected Team NZ to engage in a pre-start battle, and they weren’t disappointed in the opening race – Te Rehutai roaring into the start box at 47 knots.  

Spithill, the duke of the start box, at first appeared to have the better of the Kiwis, but the Aussie-Italian helmsman mistimed his run up to the line, had to slow up, and the two boats were virtually equal across the start-line.

Team NZ had a little more speed, and when Spithill failed in his attempt to stick a luffing penalty on the Kiwis, they got a jump on him that grew to 23s at the end of the first lap.  Luna Rossa bit a chunk out of the lead and didn’t stop looking for passing lanes, but there just weren’t any there.

On the final downwind leg, Team NZ finally pulled away, winning by their largest margin of the race, 31s.

Neither Bruni nor Spithill were fazed by the first-up loss, knowing their boat was in no way inferior to the defenders’. If they stuck to their game plan and kept calm, they knew they could peg one back.

Team NZ skipper Peter Burling fulfilling interview duties after the first day of the America’s Cup match. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

With black clouds hanging menacingly over the course, race two was a complete flip of the first.

Burling made a costly error in the pre-start – he wanted the right side of the course and tacked for the line three seconds too late, he estimated. And Spithill pounced, this time acing his countdown and using his decades of match racing experience to head off Team NZ – never relinquishing that start advantage.

Again, there was no evident speed edge to either competitor. Luna Rossa reached their highest numbers yet – 49 knots around the third mark heading downwind – before being trumped by the trailing Te Rehutai, who went two knots faster around the same mark.

Team NZ made impressive gains on the run home – “we strung together a few [wind] shifts and sailed the boat better”, Burling said – cutting the difference from 24s to 7s at the line.

It sets up a ripper of a match.

Let’s give the last word to Spithill, who quietly made history on the water yesterday, overtaking Sir Russell Coutts’ record

“I need a few more though, eh?” he joked. “But no, it’s good to still be in the game.

“Not too many sailors get to do the America’s Cup, let alone get to race in the match. It’s a real privilege in a very fortunate situation. When you consider what’s going on in the rest of the world, it’s a pretty good day to be alive, and a good day to race one of the best teams in the world. It doesn’t get much better than that for a competitor.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

Leave a comment