By STEVE McMORRAN, AP Sports Writer
Defender Team New Zealand and Italian challenger Luna Rossa won one race each Wednesday on the first day of the 36th match for sailing America’s Cup at Auckland, New Zealand, adding to the perpetual Cup enigma of which has the quicker boat.
Team New Zealand won the start and led around all marks to win the first race by 31 seconds, seeming to confirm the expectation they might have a boat-speed advantage.
But Luna Rossa crossed the start line first in the second race and, in a classic contest of tacking and covering, held out New Zealand by a shrinking margin of seven seconds. New Zealand gained on the last two legs and came home fast on the last downwind but couldn’t pass.
The leading boat has been dominant in most races in the regatta so far and again, in winds of between 12 and 18 knots, there were no passing lanes on the Hauraki Gulf on Wednesday.
“I though the boys sailed a great race,” Luna Rossa helmsman Jimmy Spithill said. “We had quite a lot of maneuvers, quite a lot of tacks and just kept the boat going well.
“It was quite a show of strength I thought to bounce back well after that first race.”
Team New Zealand looked quick, sailing low and fast upwind and low downwind in the first race. While they managed to close up the second race with a strong final beat, it was clear that in the conditions Wednesday, they didn’t hold a decisive advantage.
“It was no secret we haven’t raced in a little while and it was good to get that first race under our belt and we felt we did a really good job in that pre-start,” New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling said. “In the second pre-start just one mistake and life’s pretty hard for the rest of the race.
“We felt like the boats were pretty even today and you just had to do the right thing and sail the shifts. But we’re pretty happy we’ve got a tool here we can win this thing with.”
According to the lore of the 170-year-old Cup, no one can tell who has the faster boat until they cross the start line in the first race on the first day of the match. In the America’s Cup, it’s said, the faster boat is everything.
All the anticipation, calculation and prediction leads up to the start of the first race when everyone leans forward, holds their breath and waits to see what unfolds.
Eagerness to find the answer to the question of who is faster had been heightened before Wednesday’s delayed start to the Cup match by the fact there was very little comparative data from which to make any judgment.
Team New Zealand Luna Rossa raced in the informal America’s Cup World Series prior to Christmas but neither team was near the stage of technical development they were in by the first race Wednesday.
In the intervening three months, Luna Rossa was consistently fast in winning the Prada Cup challenger series, dismissing the United States team American Magic in the semifinal and Britain’s Team UK in the final. That racing showed that Luna Rossa was quick, especially upwind in light winds, and that it was well sailed by its dual helmsmen Francesco Bruni and Spithill.
While the Prada Cup took place, Team New Zealand trained alone but not unobserved. Reports from the Hauraki Gulf were consistent that Team New Zealand had built a very fast second generation AC75 class boat in Te Rehutai — the indigenous Maori words for Sea Spray.
Nothing could be certain until the teams came together on Wednesday in a Cup match eagerly awaited for four years.
Luna Rossa felt the sting of sea spray as Team New Zealand sailed away on the first leg of the first race.
The Italians looked to their pugnacious Australian-born helmsman Spithill to dominate Burling in the pre-starts. But Burling gained the upper hand in the start of race one.
Approaching the line and with a good time and distance run, Burling swung Te Rehutai behind Luna Rossa’s stern into the windward position and hit the line at speed. Spithill, typically combative, tried to luff Team New Zealand at the start of the first beat but the Kiwis crossed his bow and the move cost the Italian boat the lead which New Zealand retained.
“The good news is the performance of the boat seems to be pretty close so there are exciting times ahead,” Bruni said. “I still think they probably have a fast boat upwind which is not all the time great. If you are not in phase with the pressure you may lose going low and fast.”
Burling tried again to grab the windward spot near the start of the second race but his slight misjudgment gave Luna Rossa the lead. The Italian boat was superbly sailed as it defended that lead, staying in phase with New Zealand and often gaining in the tacks.
“We definitely didn’t get the best start,” Burling said. “We definitely looked a bit rusty in that one but it was good to get into them on that last beat and really show we are good downwind. It felt like had there been another lap we might have had a good chance.”
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