Win the start, win the race. For the first six races of the America’s Cup finals, that was the story for both Team New Zealand, the holder, and its Italian challenger Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli.
Both teams, and most experts, had expected an ultratight series this month in the waters off Auckland, New Zealand, and as the teams traded wire-to-wire victories over the opening days, that was exactly what happened. The first team across the line was also the first team to finish.
But for the first week the racing also felt like something else altogether: It was … boring. No passing. No duels for the lead. No dramatic comebacks.
That all changed, though, on Monday. Taking advantage of shifting winds and its ample speed, Team New Zealand passed Luna Rosa in both races to take a 5-3 lead in the finals. It added a fourth straight win on Tuesday, meaning it now needs only one more to claim the cup.
Here’s a look at how the hosts got within reach of sailing’s greatest prize.
Why have the races been so straightforward?
The world’s best sailors agree on one thing: The boats — finely tuned, meticulously prepared and expertly staffed carbon-fiber AC75s — are being sailed perfectly. And that has robbed the event of some drama.
“In recent times, this is the most interesting competition with the most boring racing,” Nathan Outteridge, the former America’s Cup skipper and Olympic gold medalist, said.
In past years, it was not uncommon for a dominant boat to sweep into the finals, and often win every race once it got there. But this year, the combination of strict design rules, high-tech simulators, a compact course and steady winds initially created an unusual deadlock.
This year’s competitors, a new class of monohull hydrofoilers, rip around at four times the speed of the wind at times. The expectation was that, at speeds like that, mistakes would tend to be amplified.
The problem was that no one was making any.
So what changed this week?
The wind, first of all.
New Zealand won Monday’s seventh race by nearly a minute, but then fell far behind in the one that followed after dropping off its foils after cutting into Luna Rossa’s wind shadow. Taking advantage, the Italians quickly opened a huge lead before running into similar trouble themselves.
Sailing into a hole in the wind, Luna Rossa dropped its hull into the water, slowed to a crawl and then ran off the course while trying to get back up to speed. With the Kiwis back on their foils, Luna Rossa watched helplessly as the Kiwis screamed past to turn a four-minute deficit into a four-minute victory.
“Two things changed yesterday,” Ken Read, a former America’s Cup helmsman and commentator, said of Monday’s races. “One, the first big break happened in this series and it was for the Kiwis. In any sport there’s a bit of luck and they found it in spades.
“Second, we finally saw the jets that the Kiwis were rumored to have. We saw sailing speeds upwind never before seen in our sport.”
New Zealand’s small, low-drag foils and innovative, aerodynamic hull are considered the main differentiators in its speed advantage, and it showed that edge again on Tuesday. After trailing through the first four marks, the Kiwis caught a wind shift and snatched the lead, winning by 30 seconds. Luna Rossa, again, could only watch its rival speed away.
At one point on Monday, Read said, Team New Zealand was traveling at 30 knots — almost 35 miles an hour — virtually into the wind.
“You can’t do that,” he said, “in your motorboat with twin Mercuries.”
So it’s all over then?
Not so fast. Luna Rossa was competitive again on Tuesday, holding the lead for much of the race, and its leaders said afterward that they still think they can make the right tactical moves to win.
“New Zealand is showing a fast boat, but Luna Rosa shows they are fast through the maneuvers,” said Nic Douglass, an Australian sailing commentator.
That means when one boat gets in front with a fast start, it can be well positioned to keep its pursuer behind — even for the entire race. “If the wind is steady,” Douglass said, “there’s not enough difference in the performance to allow for a pass.”
That was what the Italians did in their three victories, and it is what they will need to do on Wednesday to stay alive.
What’s the x-factor? Disturbed air.
That a boat with even the slightest advantage at the start can easily defend its lead and win the race has come down to several factors unique to this competition, Douglass said, including the underestimated effects of disturbed wind coming off the back of the sails.
“When a plane takes off on a runway, another plane can’t take off for at least a minute because of the disturbed wind,” Douglass said. “This is about disturbed air we can’t see. These boats cut through it like a knife and swirl it around up high.”
That can cause big problems for the trailing boat. Douglass said when one of the AC75s passes the race committee boat this year, the wind readings the committee records to help set a fair course are affected for 30 to 40 seconds. “The boats get caught in these bubbles of disturbed air,” she said.
With the boats going four times the speed of the wind, these invisible bubbles are like potholes on the course. And in lighter wind, like in Monday’s two races, these anomalies are amplified.
That is why the key is to get out front and stay there.
But surely there’s still home-water advantage?
New Zealand’s skipper, Peter Burling, has won nine world championships and an Olympic gold medal, and he brought the cup home to New Zealand four years ago. He won’t give it up without a fight.
But that may be just what he has on his hands now.
Outteridge sees a shift from perfect sailing technique to mental toughness making the difference for the rest of the competition.
“No one expected this to be this close,” he said. “The boats aren’t changing now. It has gone from a design competition to a psychological competition.”
In 2017, when Burling won the cup, it was obvious New Zealand had a faster boat. There was never a do or die moment.
“Pete never really got put under pressure in the Cup match,” he said. “I don’t know how it will turn out this time.”
His counterpart, Jimmy Spithill, faced such a moment in the 2013 Cup. Then racing the American defender, he and his teammates were down by eight races to New Zealand in the finals on San Francisco Bay.
“They sat on match point for more than a week,” Outteridge said. “Jimmy either had to deliver or they’d lose.”
That experience, he said, may pay dividends now. It had better, because he is running out of races. And time.