Monday, 30 April 2007

Reality Check

The first round of Louis Vuitton racing is over

Some random thoughts on what we’ve seen so far, in no particular order…

We’ve finally seen plenty of tight races, and that will help the Challenger cause. But I still think that this exercise has been more damaging than positive, too much nervous energy has been expended for too little. But if the weather stops draining the life out of the Challenger programmes, then constant racing at this level will give them an edge over the Defender.

Internal competition of the type that Alinghi are trying to simulate isn’t quite the same. The atmosphere is different when everything’s arranged by an outside agency. And worse, internal competition is divisive if taken too far and crew choice is left too late. Since the switch to the IACC class - with just one exception (1992) that I can think of - the Cup has been won by teams who have picked their race crews early and stuck by them.

Oracle have swopped boats since their rather average showing in Act 13 and gone straight to the top of the class. So perhaps Alinghi won’t turn up at the Cup with a speed edge that makes everything else irrelevant. But I still wouldn’t bet on it given their performance in Act 13, and the extra ten weeks they have for development while the Louis Vuitton is going on.

It looks to me like the top four have the destiny of the semi-final spots in their own hands. It’s theirs to lose - the chasing pack, Mascalzone, Victory and to a lesser extent Shosholoza, can only hope they do so… and keep trying to win their own matches.

I believe that only two teams posted new certificates after the overnight change period between round robins, UITG and China Team, so don’t expect anything radically new in the way of speed differentials. Having said that, new sails will be swopped into the inventory – some of those RR1 headsails have done a lot of tacks. Some of the replacement sails will have been ordered weeks ago, to fit in with production schedules, and sail coordinators will have been faced with the dilemma of tweaking the designs or leaving them the same. When those new sails arrive and get put up for the first time, those tweaks might not be all that was hoped for…

Winners

Oracle – Top of the leaderboard - ‘nuff said.

Luna Rossa – The predictions of a 2003-style chainsaw massacre after the losses to Shosholoza and Oracle have been shown up for what they were. This is a completely different team to 2003.

Desafio – Turned a shaky start with the loss against Areva into a solid fourth place and a semi-final spot.

Shosholoza – The soul of sailing took scalps and scared everyone, whatever happens from here they will go home heroes.

Losers

ETNZ – the pre-regatta favourites now languish in third, that handy aura of invincibility looking past its sell-by date. Now is the moment for them to show what they’re made of… as they say in cheesy B-movies.

The Rest

What else were you expecting?

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Monday, 23 April 2007

ACM Squirming?

The Louis Vuitton Cup is struggling....

Bob Fisher has had another go at ACM (America's Cup Management) over their organisation of the Louis Vuitton Challenger trials. Bob quotes an unnamed ETNZ (Emirates Team New Zealand) crew member as saying they missed nine days of sailing in April last year, but a couple of days ago we had Paul Cayard quoting ETNZ weather man, Roger Badham, as saying this run of weather was one in a million. Make your minds up guys.

Unusual or not, it’s obvious that the lack of breeze is playing into the hands of the Defender. It’s not just about the amount of time and nervous energy being burnt going out to race every day with no result, while the Alinghi crew stroll round the golf course. It's also about the remaining schedule getting so compressed, that the opportunities for changing the boats become more limited (just 11 hours between RR1 and RR2) and the opportunity for development almost non-existent. Since all this appears to be happening because the date of the America’s Cup was set first and the Challenger trial dates then fixed as a consequence, it does appear that ACM have a case to answer.

But this is nothing new - in Auckland we started racing in the freezing gales of October and lost plenty of days. The Defender has the right to set the date of the Cup match, and the Challengers have to live with it – that’s how it’s always been. Maybe we were expecting something different this time... If so, I think it's because this is the first time the Challengers have tossed their hand in with the Defender and the whole thing has been run by one single management – ACM. Given that the Challenger group has handed over that responsibility, does it force a greater responsibility on ACM to ensure that the Challenger gets a decent chance? I think it does, and the fact that the playing field is now so steadily shifting towards Alinghi because of decisions made by ACM is going to become increasingly embarrassing - expect more broadsides from the mighty ‘Fish’.

Still, we shouldn’t forget that one of the primary reasons that we’re seeing teams like Shosholoza pressure teams like Oracle (or in Mascalzone's case actually beat ETNZ) is because of all the pre-Louis Vuitton racing in the Acts. And ACM were responsible for that. So it’s not all bad. But, the longer this exercise in futility goes on, the more the advantage amongst the challengers will swing to the big teams. They have the resources to better cope with the endless two race days that will become necessary to clear the schedule. And they will be desperate to keep the time gap between the end of round robin two and the semis, so they can rest people properly and do boat changes and minimise the impact of this schedule crash on the later matches. While the smaller teams will be desperate to extend the round robins - lots of action in non-smoky (these days) backrooms, I suspect...

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Keels Again...

Keels are once again the hot topic in America's Cup medialand...

The non-deflecting-keel-gate rumbles on in the media surrounding the America’s Cup – although I’m not sure it’s to any great purpose. But keels have been a sensitive issue in the Cup ever since Alan Bond first covered his up in 1983, and then took the trophy home with a revolutionary winged keel. So I suppose it makes sense that now (with the new rules) the keels can’t be screened, the interest has shifted to the engineering inside the boats, which is still hidden.

Tim Jeffries chucked in his two cents worth in the Telegraph, where he comments, ‘What has been going [sic] is far more subtle and is a continuous thread of development through the last three or four Cups. Just as the sail designers know how advantageous it is to let the mast twist to match the curvature in the wind, so hull designers know that keel fins work much more effectively if some of the efficiency losses caused when they sag to leeward as the boat heels can be clawed back.

‘Precisely because the designers would love to make the mast and keel fin do things, the rules prevent them from using complex mechanisms to make this happen. What teams can do is use controls to limit or harness what happens when normal sailing forces are applied.

‘Any piece of smart, agile engineering that harnesses natural forces acting on the rig and fin keel is beneficial.

‘What is noticeable about the SUI 100 is that its keel fin shape varies over its four-metre depth. This suggests it will react differently as it 'flies' through the water. But Alinghi are not alone among teams in trying this idea.’

This is far from my area of expertise, but I thought the difference in fin shape from top to bottom was usually due to either weight optimisation – as the lower part of the fin carries less load – or down to varying the lift distribution over the fin. More lift at the root of the keel will be worse for wave drag, and more lift at the bottom will be worse for induced drag. The designers are playing these elements off to look for the most efficient solution. Using this shape to somehow alleviate the fin deflection sounds like the kind of free lunch that just doesn’t exist in sailboats.

Meanwhile, the NZ Herald is chasing the idea that… ‘Devices that move the keel are not permitted, but it is understood a number of teams have been looking at a way of linking the fin to the rig so that when the boat heels over, the pressure comes on the fin via the rig, which may reduce the deflection on the keel.’

This sounds like some seriously complex, and therefore, heavy, engineering, particularly as the rig loads enter the hull in a different place to the keel loads – and surely they’d have to line up, otherwise you’d be twisting the keel, not stiffening it? On balance, I’m still inclined to think that this whole thing blowing up at the start of the Louis Vuitton, and in an NZ newspaper, was too much of a coincidence - someone is just trying to pull our chains. Fortunately, with no racing for a couple of days and not much else to talk about than which supermodel Oracle have on the back of the boat, we’ve got plenty of time for such diversions…

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com


Mark Chisnell ©

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Keel-gate or Not...

Canting-keel-gate by another name...

One day into the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series, and already we have a controversey - surprised? But canting-keel-gate looks like it’s turning out to be non-deflecting-keel-gate, which isn’t quite as catchy. Sail-world have kindly posted the relevant rule and the interpretation that was requested (which started it all). While Bob Fisher’s take on it is here. But as the man at Valencia Sailing points out, the interpretation has been kicking around for ten months, and it surfaces right at the start of the LV?

Still, to back up a bit, the advantage of a canting keel, as used in the Volvo Ocean 70, is to drag the lead bulb on the end of the keel fin, up to windward and so increase the righting moment. This involves a lot of engineering to allow the whole fin to rotate, not to mention the hydraulics to pump it from side to side when you tack. And according to the interpretation, it looks as though Ken McAlpine, the Technical Director for the yachts, has stymied any possible investigation of a loophole here – as he should. But there might be scope in the answer for just limiting the amount the keel fin normally deflects to leeward.

We used to have a ‘keel cam’ on the OneWorld Challenge boats. It was there to check for weed, you could view it from a browser window on the on-deck computer screen. But when those long testing days were getting to you, it was always entertaining to watch twenty tonnes of bulb flapping around on the end of the steel fin - more interesting than Coronation Street anyway. Particularly when you're sitting on the boat - the point is that the fin bends a lot, and the bulb moves a long way to leeward. If this can be prevented there is a big gain to be made in righting moment and speed. But you’d need someone a lot smarter than me to work out how to do it without contravening either the rule, or Ken’s interpretation.

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Challenger Trials…

Louis Vuitton Cup Round Robin One Gets Underway

So from here it’s all going to happen very quickly and a lot of people are going to be headed home from the America's Cup in Valencia very soon. The boat announcements make the news this weekend - with both Oracle and ETNZ dumping their Act 13 rides.

In a recent Seahorse interview, Marcelino Botin reckoned the two ETNZ boats were designed for different wind ranges and this might be a clue as to why they’ve switched. It’s conceivable that 83 was developed as more of an all-rounder for the Acts, with the second boat focussed on winning the semis and finals in Valencia’s sea breeze. Act 13 was hit by an unstable weather pattern, and the all-rounder was probably the better choice. Perhaps that unstable weather is now reckoned to be behind us as we move into the more predictable summer sea breeze (if it ever stops raining) – and be more to 92’s liking?

As for Oracle, the same might apply as for ETNZ… but USA 87 put in a less than world crushing performance in Act 13. And when Oracle has been deep in the dodo before, radical change did work for them - a decidedly dodgy opening to the Louis Vuitton in 2003 saw the axe wielded ruthlessly by Larry Ellison and the previously side-lined Chris Dickson brought back to centre stage. On that occasion, Oracle recovered to appear in the Louis Vuitton Cup final against Alinghi. The first few races of round robin one will tell us whether this boat switch will do the same trick.

Everyone else has stayed in the boats they used in Act 13. The very first flight has the real winners of Act 13 - Mascalzone, fast improving runners up to ETNZ – up against the team that only beat them by a point. This match will begin to tell us whether ETNZ can continue to dominate the challenger fleet and whether Mascalzone are genuine contenders for the semis – are we watching a prelude to the semi-final match-up?

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Monday, 9 April 2007

The Final Act

Louis Vuitton Act 13 ends with a comprehensive win for the America's Cup defender

All right, I know that headline is probably being used in a dozen different places to open reports on Louis Vuitton Act 13 - the last regatta in the series of preliminary events ahead of the Louis Vuitton Cup. But the coincidence of that and a comprehensive fourteen point win by America’s Cup defender Alinghi does raise the question – is it all over before it’s begun?

I asked a couple of people (who should know) before the start of Act 13 if they thought that Alinghi was likely to turn up and race with their optimal configuration of hull, foils, bulb, mast and sails – and the answer was no. It was hard to see what they might gain from showing their hand to the Challenger fleet so early. After all, only Alinghi know where the boat they used in Act 13 sits, in performance terms, relative to what else they have in that vast Valencian operations base. They could use a slower configuration and still get a measure of the challenger fleet, without revealing the full extent of their own performance gains over the winter.

Or – alternatively - they could come out fully cocked, hoping to blow the doors off everyone else and achieve a psychological victory that would still be echoing in ten weeks time.

Let’s hope it’s the latter, because if Alinghi have more speed to come, then the America's Cup match will be another whitewash. If there’s one clue that they might have chosen to race with their fastest gear, it dates back to 2003, when they sailed against OneWorld Challenge before the opening Louis Vuitton Round Robin. They thrashed us comprehensively with the new boat (although rumours were circulating that it didn’t measure), and then brought the old one out for the Round Robin - only to end up with us taking a race off them and topping the group.

Afterwards, there were stories that the result had shaken their confidence more than a little (fully restored by reversing the result in Round Robin Two and leading the challenger fleet from then on…), but the memory of that experience may have been enough to convince them that winning counts for more than guarding their hand.

But even so, back in 2003, Alinghi’s quicker pace of development during the Louis Vuitton Cup won them the challenger title. They managed that despite the distraction of racing, but this time the LV schedule is much tighter, making it difficult to see where the challengers are going to find the time to make gains in pure boat speed - rather than racing competence. They will be busy keeping the tills of Valencia ker-chinging by providing the entertainment for the next two and a half months, while Alinghi will be quietly doing more of what they’ve already established they are very good at – producing phenomenally fast boats.

Looked at like this, it’s hard to see why this wasn’t the final act….?

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com


Mark Chisnell ©

Thursday, 5 April 2007

A Trip to Valencia

Esquire Photo Shoot

I've just come back from Valencia, doing some interviews for Esquire magazine - they'll accompany a photoshoot that will appear in the July issue. It was interesting to go round nine of the twelve team bases and see how they respond to a gaggle of photographer, assistant, journo, stylist and make-up all arriving en masse.

(Photo - the America's Cup Harbour before the circus came to town)


In some we had to work out how to make our own coffee, while waiting 45 minutes for the interviewee to arrive, in others we were treated to espresso, cake, and a spot in the sun on the balcony while we waited our turn to do our thing - take the picture or quiz the victim. If the facilities offered are any indication of the race course results (and three races into Act 13 there looks to be a reasonable correlation) then the fourth semi-final spot is between Mascalzone and Desafio Espanol, the Challenger spot is too close to call (although Emirates Team New Zealand was one of the bases we didn't visit) and Alinghi will win the Cup!

The interviews went better than I thought, some people are more thoughtful or more forthcoming than others, but the general standard was way above the 'game of two halves' football cliché. Let's hope the clarity and honesty continues when the pressure's on...


Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

Mark Chisnell ©