Spithill unbeaten

Despite beating "a bit rusty" after day one of the RC44's Gold Cup in Puerto Calero

Thursday December 11th 2008, Author: Andy Rice, Location: United Kingdom
When the wind is gusting up to 25 knots, with some big shifts thrown in for good measure, sometimes winning in the RC44 fleet is a matter of keeping the wheels on the wagon. So it didn’t look too good for Team Ceeref when, on the first beat of the first race, the hydraulic ram on their forestay broke. This immediately led to the jib being shredded to within a few yarns of its life. They were lucky it didn’t disintegrate altogether. At this point James Spithill was still leading the match from his colleagues on board BMW Oracle Racing, but with Larry Ellison rapidly closing in on the wounded Croatian boat.

Thanks to some “creative trimming”, as Spithill put it, they managed to get to the top mark just ahead of the American boat without the jib breaking completely. It was neck and neck on the fast downwind leg but Igor Lah’s team rounded the leeward mark first. They extended to win quite comfortably when the American boat broached a few hundred metres before the finish line.

Having survived that early scare, Team Ceeref sailed a near faultless day, looking solid in the pre-start and going on to win all five matches in some challenging conditions, with the north easterly wind shifting hither and thither off the mountainous coast of Lanzarote. Not a bad outing for Spithill who, after many weeks of high-speed training on BMW Oracle’s giant trimaran, admitted to being “a little rusty”.

“The battle with Larry [Ellison] was a high point. The in-house battles always seem to be the closest," continued Spithill. "We had a problem when the hydraulic ram on the forestay blew out on the first beat. The jib was shredded, just held together by a few yarns for the rest of the race, so we had to be creative with our trimming. It was a good effort by the crew to be able to stay ahead.”

Team Aqua lost their last match of the day against Ceeref, but apart from that it was an excellent set of races for Chris Bake’s team from United Arab Emirates. Kiwi helmsman Cameron Appleton sailed some aggressive pre-starts and made them work well for the team. He also took maximum advantage of his rivals’ errors. In the match against Banco Espirito Santo from Portugal, Team Aqua was leading round the final turning mark but had problems setting their spinnaker. Mark Mendelblatt looked set to surf the Portuguese boat into the lead when they suffered their own spinnaker problems through a messy gybe. Appleton was off the hook, and regained the advantage to seal victory.

“That was my first time helming in the match racing in these boats, and I took a beating, a proper beating," commented Mendelblatt afterwards. "We had a couple of opportunities to win races but I found a way to blow it! In our match against BMW Oracle we thought we were over the line, so we stopped and then realised we weren't over, so that was frustrating. One of those days. But I'm loving the opportunity to do this. We had as much fun as we could have had today with the results we got.”

“It was a wild ride, well over 15 knots most of the time, gusting up to 24," Chris Bake described the sailing. "The reaches were wild, the pre-starts were intense. It was full on. Everyone was focused, it was just a great day's sailing.”

Islas Canarias Puerto Calero are the new kids on the block in the RC44 class. This was their fourth day sailing the boat, and what a tough way to start their campaign - against the world’s best match racers in some of the toughest conditions. Gear breakage and unfamiliarity with equipment proved their undoing, but against Aqua they led all the way round the race course. However on the final run to the finish, Chris Bake’s team were the first to spot the big left-hand shift and they gybed almost as soon as they rounded the windward mark. José Maria Ponce found himself stranded on the outside of the new breeze and had to flog the spinnaker to get across the finish line. An opportunity missed, but he and the rest of Daniel Calero’s crew are fast learners. Perhaps tomorrow they will get their first victory in the RC44 fleet.

“We had many problems during the race, breaking many things," said José Maria Ponce. "From the first downwind leg of the day, the grinding pedestal was not working and you cannot win races like that. But we have a good team, with more experience after today, so I look forward to having a much better day tomorrow.”

Larry Ellison was steering a brand new boat, and so was suffering the inevitable teething problems. However, the Americans looked stronger as the day went on and in the final match against Artemis they managed to beat Dean Barker, moving BMW Oracle Racing into third overall with a 3:2 scoreline, and relegating the Swedish team to fourth overall with 2:3.

Dean Barker, helmsman, Artemis: “That was pretty average from us. We had a few issues, which meant we ended up with three losses, not ideal. But it will be tricky conditions again tomorrow, so anything can happen. This was the first time we raced as a crew in some real breeze, so we’ll just chip away tomorrow and see how we go.”

Dirk de Ridder, crewmember, BMW Oracle Racing: “Our last race was a high point, beating Dean. It’s always good to beat Dean Barker. He's one of the best. Now we have some boat work to do. We had a problem with the jib halyard, which meant we couldn't drop the jib downwind, and that makes it hard to set the spinnaker.”

Today was windy. Tomorrow is expected to be windier. Another day where it will be all about keeping the wheels on the wagon.

The match racing event concludes tomorrow, followed by three days of fleet racing.

Match-race, results after five flights:

(Name of team, helmsman, No of victories / defeats, points)

1) Team Ceeref, James Spithill, 5/0 - 5 points
2) Team Aqua, Cameron Appleton 4/1 - 4 points
3) BMW Oracle Racing, Larry Ellison, 3/2 - 3 points
4) Artemis, Dean Barker, 2/3 - 2 points
5) Team Banco Espirito Santo, Mark Mendelblatt, 1/4 - 1 point
6) Islas Canarias Puerto Calero, José Maria Ponce, 0/5 - 0 points

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