Ben Ainslie lost all five of his races and all but toppled from contention for reaching Saturday's semifinals. Yes, that Ben Ainslie, the ISAF World Sailor of the Year and triple Olympic gold medalist. "Can we [still] get to the top four?" he asked at the dock.
That tale will be told Friday in the last three of 18 rounds as Ainslie goes to work with an 8-7 record trying to overtake three rivals - France's Mathieu Richard, the 2007 winner; New Zealand's Adam Minoprio, who just won the World Match Racing Tour opener at Marseille, and Italy's Francesco Bruni, a late entry - who share second place at 10-5.
Terry Hutchinson, the 1992 winner and 2008 Audi MedCup champion with Quantum Racing, is in at 13-2 but not mathematically assured of finishing first. "If we lose all three of our races and Mathieu wins his, he has the tiebreaker on us," Hutchinson pointed out.
And after what happened to Ainslie Thursday, it would seem anything is possible. Even France's Sébastien Col, the top-ranked match racer, has already missed the shuttle to the sail-offs with a record of 6 1/2 points despite seven wins - the critical half-point deducted for causing damage to Johnie Berntsson's transom in a pre-start collision.
The Swedish sailor presented Col with a six-inch-long fiberglass splinter at the evening's press conference. "This cost $300," Col said, noting the deduction from his damage deposit insurance for the Catalina 37s.
Richard and Minoprio both won all five of their races Thursday, lifting themselves dramatically from so-so performances the first two days. Richard started his day by handing Hutchinson his second loss of the week after slamming the door at the committee boat.
Hutchinson came back to lead at the second (last) windward mark, but Richard stayed close enough to smother his power downwind and retake the lead for a nine-second win that prompted a momentary show of angry frustration from the U.S.'s Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. "The boat's been going very fast and the crew has overcome some of my mediocrity," Hutchinson said. "I'll need to do better than that."
But it was a frustrating type of day that started with 10 knots of wind from southeast and dropped to 5 or 6 as it swung 50 degrees right to the south through the afternoon - so light that there were several key lead changes when trailing boats played their advantage by blanketing the leaders.
Kelvin Harrap, Ainslie's tactician, said, "We led at four top [windward] marks."
Ainslie added, "When we started off the day we were pretty reserved. We got aggressive later."
Worth noting: While Berntsson managed a lukewarm 3-2 day out of the "wonder boat," number 11, whose first two teams - Ainslie and Finland's Staffan Lindberg - went 10-0, Ainslie rotated to boat number 10, which had a 2-8 record going into Thursday. Now it's 2 and 13.
"It didn't feel great," Ainslie said, "but in match racing you deal with what you've got. You can't blame the boat. It's the guys sailing it."
Minoprio's guys include two known well locally: Rod Davis, the Team New Zealand coach who grew up in nearby Coronado, Calif. to win four Congressional Cups, and Steve Flam, a lifelong Long Beach sailor who probably has sailed more Con Cups and more miles on a Catalina 37 than anyone as tactician for others, including the late Chris Law in 1994.
Davis is calling tactics for the 23-year-old Minoprio; Flam trims the main sail. Minoprio said, "Rod figures out what the wind is doing, tells me how we should start and where we should go and keeps me aware of everything that's going on. All I have to do is steer. Today we won every start. In these races you can't make mistakes. We didn't make mistakes today."
They won some of their races by coming from behind, as if trailing was almost an advantage. "In this light breeze it almost is," Minoprio said.
Richard, ranked No. 3 in the world, said, "We have improved on a lot of little things . . . the speed of the boat and the tactics." As for Ainslie's nosedive, he added: "It happens. I don't know how to explain it."
The Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier east of downtown Long Beach has bleacher seating within rooting distance of the action, free parking at the beach end and shuttle service starting, all free of charge.
Sébastien Col, France, def. Staffan Lindberg, Finland, O:25; Philippe Presti, France, d. Brian Angel, USA, 0:22; Adam Minoprio, New Zealand, d., Ben Ainslie, Great Britain, 0:03; Mathieu Richard, France, d. Terry Hutchinson, USA, 0:09; Francesco Bruni, Italy, d. Johnie Berntsson, Sweden, 0:16.
Minoprio d. Presti, 0:38; Hutchinson d. Ainslie, 0:38; Richard d. Bruni, 0:14; Berntsson d. Col, 0:11; Lindberg d. Angel, 0:28.
Bruni d. Ainslie, 0:03; Richard d. Berntsson 0:10; Col d. Angel, 0:48; Minoprio d. Lindberg, 0:10; Hutchinson d. Presti, 0:27.
Richard d. Col, 0:45; Minoprio d. Angel, 0:36; Hutchinson d. Lindberg, 0:24; Bruni d. Presti, 0:45; Berntsson d. Ainslie, 0:23.
Hutchinson d. Angel, 1:03; Bruni d. Lindberg, 0:30; Berntsson d. Presti, 0:47; Richard d. Ainslie, 0:58; Minoprio d. Col, 0:12.
STANDINGS (after 15 of 18 rounds): 1. Hutchinson, 13-2; 2. tie among Bruni, Richard and Minoprio, 10-5; 5. Ainslie, 8-7; 6. tie between Berntsson and Col, 7-8; 8. Lindberg, 6-9; 9. Presti, 3-12; 10. Angel, 1-14.
More photos on page 2....