Team New Zealand have reached the point of no return with the launch of their second AC72 yesterday, 24 hours ahead of Oracle's boat, and the nerves are beginning to show.
The milestone, marked in a blessing ceremony led by Auckland iwi Ngati Whatua at the Team New Zealand base in the Viaduct, represents a significant point in the campaign. In scheduling the launch of their version two boat yesterday, 24 hours before America's Cup-holders Oracle are due to put their first boat back on the water after four months of repairs following a capsize last year, Emirates Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton wanted to send out a strong statement.
But his Oracle counterpart Sir Russell Coutts has made some strong statements of his own of late. After claiming last week that he "wouldn't trade positions with any other team at this point" despite being out of action since October, Coutts told a Spanish sailing website at the weekend he did not expect to face Team New Zealand in the finals.
In an interview with vsail.info, Coutts said that while Team New Zealand appeared to have a head start, the points are not counted until September.
"We haven't yet seen the second boat of Artemis and I wouldn't write Artemis off right now. It looks to me they will come out strong with the changes they recently made in their organisation. I, certainly, am not thinking we will be facing Team New Zealand." Coutts may have simply been stating it is not a given Dean Barker's crew will be in the America's Cup final; or he doesn't think Team New Zealand have the goods to make it. Dalton's interpretation was the latter, although he refused to take the bait of reporters and fire any barbs back at his Oracle counterpart.
"[Coutts] obviously likes Artemis, and who am I not to have huge respect for his comments? He's a guy that obviously knows sailing - he's a lot better at it than me, so I hope we're not in the wrong spot," Dalton said. But Dalton's response indicates a certain level of anxiety in the camp now that Team New Zealand are committed to their design - one that differs significantly from that of Cup defenders Oracle and Artemis, the challenger of record.
Team New Zealand established early in testing with their first boat the hydrofoiling capabilities of the new class, leading them to alter their hull shape for the second boat. Given the catamaran can foil downwind - meaning both hulls are clear of the water - the designers have biased the performance characteristics of the hulls more to upwind sailing. Artemis have resisted the use of foiling technology and there is speculation Oracle may also move to a non-foiling boat owing to concerns over the stability and manoeuvrability of the giant catamarans in the tight San Francisco Bay race course.
Dalton said that while he was confident with the design team's decisions, he would not know if they had taken the right course until their War of nerves for Team NZ first contest in San Francisco. "We couldn't really change it even if we wanted to, it's too late. Yeah, I am happy with where we're at, we're going to remain incredibly nervous, but we just don't know... no one really knows."
With two clear deviations in design, there is the potential for a strong cross-over between light air and heavy air performance. That has Dalton worried that Oracle may try to amend the rules on race timing and wind thresholds, prompting him to fire off a pre-emptive strike at the Cup defenders. "Really all we can hope for now is we're given a fair shot at this. If Oracle wake up one morning and sense they've got a problem, [we hope] they don't start trying to screw with the rules. San Francisco is a venue which is very dependent on the time of the day for its wind strength. So we are set up for a time of day as published and agreed, and we just hope that remains the case."
After yesterday's blessing, New Zealand Aotearoa was christened in traditional fashion with Mandy Barker pouring champagne across the bow of the 72-foot catamaran. With winds gusting 28-30 knots, Dalton did not put the boat in the water, but the team aim to go for their first sail on Thursday.
Coutts v Dalton
February 2013, on the differences between the two boats:
Coutts: "I, certainly, am not thinking we will be facing Team New Zealand."
Dalton: "If Oracle wake up one morning and sense they've got a problem, [we hope] they don't start trying to screw with the rules."
January 2013, after it became apparent Team New Zealand would launch their second boat before Oracle had repaired their first boat:
Coutts: "I wouldn't trade positions with any other team at this point."
October 2012, after Coutts revealed he tried to scale back the AC72 class rule:
Dalton: "There are a chain of things that aren't being produced as promised."
Coutts: "Some people are only happy if they're having a grumble about something."
(Original source: Dana Johannsen, The New Zealand Herald )