Most observers were agreed that it would be Britain’s America’s Cup challenge sinking without trace in Auckland last week. The humiliating nature of Ineos Team UK’s defeat in a warm-up regatta just before Christmas - six defeats out of six in a boat which looked like a seriously expensive dud - set alarm bells ringing in the sailing world.
Instead, an extraordinary first three days of the Prada Cup challenger series ended on Sunday with Ineos top of the pile, with four wins from four races in their much-improved boat, and the Americans’ boat ‘Patriot’ having to be fished out of the Hauraki Gulf. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
American Magic’s spectacular capsize capped a hugely dramatic day, which rounded off the first phase of this Prada Cup round robin series. The winner of the Prada Cup will go on to face defenders New Zealand in the Cup match in March.
The three challengers - Britain, Italy and the United States - now have four days in which to rest and recover before the racing resumes on Friday. American Magic are going to need them all judging by the size of the hole in their hull, and their (presumably) flooded electronic systems. Thankfully none of their sailors was hurt.
The Americans’ capsize happened in the second race of the day, as the they took on challenger of record Luna Rossa in the strongest winds yet seen in this Prada Cup, with gusts of over 20knots and choppy seas.
Luna Rossa had earlier lost to Ineos in a tight race that had to be re-started after a first attempt was abandoned due to a big wind shift. And the Italians were behind again in their second race of the day as the two boats neared the final windward gate.
With a healthy lead on the water, there was no real need for American Magic to take it at the speed they did. They might have been better served scratching off a few knots before attempting to bear away.
Indeed their wing trimmer, Britain’s Olympic gold medal-winning dinghy sailor Paul Goodison, could be heard over the comms warning skipper Terry Hutchinson and helmsman Dean Barker against the difficult tack-bear away manoeuvre.
But Barker went for it, a heavy gust duly lifting Patriot spectacularly up in the air before plonking her down on her port side. American Magic’s boat speed was over 40 knots (46mph) just prior to the crash.
All 11 crew were quickly accounted for but frantic scenes saw chase boats from rival teams come in to assist a salvage operation that went on well into the evening.
— Paul Cully (@paulcullystuff) January 17, 2021
Flotation devices and support vessels had to be attached to the boat to keep it above the surface, with pumps used to remove water from the hull. Video footage of ‘Patriot’ when it was finally lifted out of the water back at the team base later in the evening revealed a huge hole.
It remains to be seen whether American Magic can make it back by Friday. They have the fallback of waiting for the repechage semi-final which starts on Jan 29. But in any case they issued a statement late in the evening thanking their rivals and Cup officials for their assistance.
"We’d like to again express our sincere thanks to our competitors, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, INEOS Team UK, and Emirates Team New Zealand, for immediately coming to our assistance,” they said. “An ETNZ chase boat is currently assisting the team with the tow operation, and our fellow Challengers helped with equipment, personnel, and general support on the water.
"We are also grateful to America’s Cup Event Ltd, the race management team, Coastguard New Zealand, the Auckland Harbormaster, local fire and police personnel and all others who have and still are helping us during this difficult moment for our team.”
Ineos’ win against Luna Rossa earlier in the day came after the first attempt to stage the race was abandoned due to a huge wind shift which meant the course had to be reset.
Luna Rossa had been leading the first race, and the second was nip and tuck as well, with the Italians fractionally faster upwind and the British boat Britannia seemingly having the edge downwind. There were three lead changes before Ainslie and tactician Giles Scott split rounding the windward mark on leg 4 and managed to carve out what proved to be a decisive advantage.
“It was a chaotic, frantic day,” Scott said later. “One of those really stressful days when there was no respite at all. If we weren’t having issues in the racing, we were having issues in 25-knot winds trying to do battery changes and sail changes. It was just a non-stop day.
“I think what made things particularly challenging was that we were sailing Course A, which is a really open course [further out to sea]. We had some really rough sea state. I just looked at the replays and I don’t think television coverage did it justice.”
Ainslie did not speak afterwards, apart from a brief statement on Twitter in which he said he was thinking of his American rivals. “Nobody wants to see a capsize like that,” he noted. There is a long way to go, but at the end of a frantic first few days the British helmsman will simply be thankful his team are competitive and no longer have that sinking feeling.