SAN FRANCISCO — With the Golden Gate Bridge looming to his right, Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker hit the starting line and immediately got his 72-foot catamaran speeding across the tops of the waves on hydrofoils.
The America’s Cup challenger trials were underway on San Francisco Bay and the Kiwis were clearly in control. At one point, the boys from Down Under hit 42.8 knots in their high-performance cat, or just more than 49 mph.
Of course, it helped that there was no opponent.
Emirates Team New Zealand sailed alone around the course Sunday to collect the first point of the regatta. Their scheduled opponent, Italy’s Luna Rossa, boycotted, saying it won’t race until an international jury hears protests regarding rules changes made after Andrew “Bart” Simpson of Artemis Racing was killed in a capsize May 9.
Did it feel like a victory?
“No,” Barker said, “For us, it’s just another day of practice in terms of getting better for the knockout stages in August.”
While the Kiwis put on a show for spectators lining the shore, it was hardly what organizers had in mind after software tycoon Larry Ellison reclaimed the America’s Cup for the United States more than three years ago.
“I feel sorry for people coming down to watch to only see one boat sailing around,” Barker said. “People come down to see a contest and that’s what we should be putting on. We respect Luna Rossa’s decision not to sail. They’ve done it on their own decision, their own, merits, their own beliefs, but when you look at the shoreline, there were a lot of people there today, given it was just us sailing around alone. We need to make sure we give them something to watch.”
What needs to be done?
“We need another boat to turn up and go racing,” he said.
This is supposed to be the most eye-popping America’s Cup ever, with the sleek, space-age catamarans sailing three times the speed of the wind with a stunning backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and the Transamerica pyramid.
It’s also the first time in the regatta’s 162-year history that it’s been contested inshore rather than miles out to sea.
But the contest for the oldest trophy in international sports has been bogging down since even before it started.
The accident that killed Simpson led regatta director Iain Murray to make 37 safety recommendations, including changes to the winglets on the rudders that he says will make the catamarans more stable, particularly as they speed downwind riding only on hydrofoils.
Luna Rossa and Team New Zealand protested, saying Murray doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally change the rules. They say their boats were designed and built under the old rules and they don’t have time to build new rudders and, perhaps more importantly, test them. They’ve also said they feel the change gives an advantage to Ellison’s defending champion Oracle Team USA, which will spend the next two months testing its two boats.
The jury hearing is scheduled for Monday.
“After May 9, the game changed,” America’s Cup CEO Stephen Barclay said Sunday. “That’s the sad reality.”
Once the teams studied Murray’s rules changes in detail, “their competitive juices took over,” Barclay added.
Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena said the Italians chose to sit out on principle, leaving their boat with twin silver hulls back at the pier they share with the Kiwis.
Even though the Italians have a new wing sail and hydrofoils — the major speed-producing components on the high-performance cats — there’s also the possibility they didn’t want to get beaten on opening day by the Kiwis, who are the class of the three challengers.
A few weeks ago, Luna Rossa was soundly beaten by the Kiwis in a practice race.
Luna Rossa sailed three practice laps on Saturday.
Barclay said putting a new wing sail and hydrofoils on these boats is “a bit like putting a new engine or a turbocharger in a car. So we’d love to see them perform, and I think the fans would, too.
“Max said it was because of principles. But we saw them sailing around yesterday and they looked good. They looked strong,” Barclay said. “A couple weeks ago, we watched them out there and maybe they didn’t look so strong. But clearly they’ve improved. We thought it would be great to see them take on Emirates Team New Zealand, which looks like the form horse at the moment.”
Sirena was told of New Zealand’s top speed Sunday.
“We went a little bit faster than that, which I can tell you is scary,” he said, referring to Luna Rossa’s practice sail Saturday.
Sirena scoffed at the notion that the Italians aren’t ready to race the Kiwis.
“You should ask that to Russell Coutts,” Sirena snapped.
Coutts, the most dominant skipper in America’s Cup history, called the Italians “a bunch of spoiled rich kids dressed in Prada gear” after Sirena said Friday that Luna Rossa was considering sitting out.
Coutts, a four-time America’s Cup winner, is CEO of Oracle Team USA.
While Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa have been training partners, they’re not joined at the hip.
Luna Rossa’s major backer is fashion house Prada. Luna Rossa boss Patrizio Bertelli is married to Miuccia Prada.
The Kiwis rely heavily on government funding as well as a handful of major commercial sponsors, and they want to show well for the supporters back home and those who’ve traveled here.
“We’ve turned up here to go racing and we trust that the international jury will make the correct decision,” Barker said. “Whether we sail or not is not going to influence that.”
Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa and Artemis are the only three challengers. Artemis’s first boat was destroyed in the capsize that killed Simpson and the Swedish-based team won’t have its new boat ready for sea trials for about two weeks. That makes it unlikely Artemis will be ready to compete until the Louis Vuitton Cup semifinals in early August.
The team that’s leading after the five round-robins has the choice to advance straight to the Louis Vuitton Cup final, leaving the other two boats to contest the semifinals beginning Aug. 6.
Luna Rosa and Team New Zealand will still have to sail around the course to earn a point on days they’re scheduled to race against Artemis in the round-robins.
The next time New Zealand and Italy are scheduled to race each other is Saturday in the opening race of round-robin two.
The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup will face Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup beginning Sept. 7.
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