The First Match Race?

First published in the America's Cup supplement of Boat International

"Ma'am, there is no second."

Young match racing champion Andy Green outlines this specialized discipline of yacht racing that is the foundation of Americas Cup racing. Lord Alfred Paget made his famous quote in response to Queen Victoria's rather loaded question as to who the runner up was in a certain race around the Ilse of Wight nearly 150 years ago. Today, more than ever before, it epitemises what the Americas Cup stands for. The return matches, where the humiliated British establishment consistently challenged the young upstarts from New York, eventually resulted in just one pair of boats on the race course dealing with matters of honour, as opposed to the more easily understood fleet race. The two-boat-only format became the norm for Americas Cup matches, one boat normally being outclassed on the speed front (unfortunately always the challenger) more by disparity in design parameters and size than anything else. But, in time, when both sides developed the event to be raced in "similar" boats, the competition got to the stage where superior speed as a comodity wasn't always easy to find and never enough on it's own to guarantee a win. Intelligent use and exploitation of the right of way rules along with strategic positioning of one's boat relative to the oppsoition became more and more important to the outcome. From this a specialised discipline called match racing emerged which has now developed to such a level that it has it's own set of rules, nuances and associated specialists.

Sometimes analogous to a slow bicycle or a gladiatorial dual, match racing isn't really about the fastaest time around the track, it is about keeping the other boat behind you. It is much easier to win an Americas Cup match race by having a faster boat, hence the effort spent in developing a superior machine.The worst case scenario is that your boat is slower than the other or harder still, both boats have equal speed. This is when, other than with luck, match racing skills will be required to gain the advantage and ultimately determine the races outcome.

The firat rule of match racing, as was being explained to Queen Victoia, is that first place wins and second is last. However, it has not always been like that. The introduction of the on-water umpires in 1992 has meant that the race really is settled on the water. Before that time if you won the race and fouled a boat you could still lose it in the protest room later. This was no fun for competitors and jury and made things very dificult for the media and the public to understand.

I Auckland we will again see umpire noats in the thick of the action, they will follow the race boats, constantly checking for infringements and make rulings on various incidents. If either competitor feels that an infringement has occurred they will conspicuously display a yellow and red striped flag (the "y" flag). The umpires then make a decision on the incident as they saw it. There are three possible outcomes. Each sailing boat is ientified by either a yellow or a blue flag. If one of th boats has fouled, the umpires, relative to the colour of the boat that has fouled, will fly either a yellow or a blue flag. If there is deemed to have been no foul committed, a green flag is flown.

If a penalty is incurred the boat that has infringed must exonerate herself before crossing the finish line. This involves turning the boat through 270 degrees. In 24ft boats this is a fairly standard proceedure and takes about 8 - 12 seconds. However in a Americas Cup boat at around 75ft long it is much more of a task. Huge mainsails and heavy booms give the crews a mamoth task to let the sails out and then wind them back

in to complete the turn as fast as possible. The losses are significant and hence penalties are avoided at all costs. The umpires are increasingly on site to ensure fair play rather than to give penalties. The skippers will avoid infringing because of the severirty of the punishment. If a boat does incur a penalty, this will also change the races strategy. A boat without a penalty will try to race clean and clear of the other boat. Equally a penalised boat will race more aggressively, trying to either give one back to the other boat or to try to get far enough ahead to shed the penalty without being caught and passed by the opposition.

In terms of the action, expect to see sparks to fly just after the five minute gun is fired. This the pre start time. Both boats enter into the "engagement zone" from opposite ends of the start line, depending on their flag colour. The boat that enters from the right hand side begins on starboard right of the way tack wit the yellow flag and the baot on the left enters on port and must avoid the starboard boat. The choice of ends is made in a pre-race draw, a bit like the toss of a coin before th start of a football match determines which end you chose to play the first half from. The rules allow the starboard tack boat to change ends and 'hunt ' the other boat, and lure him into commiting a foul. This is however restricted to some extent and as soon as the starboard tack boat changes course it must allow the port tack boat enough time to avoid a collision. A penalty will be given if either th port boat does not respond in time or th estarboard boat changes course so close as to restrict the opposition from being able to avoid a bang. Being on starboard does not guarantee all the rights!

This first "coming together" of the boats is usually followed by one boat chasing the tail of the other, in a circular movement until one boat is dominant and is able to chase or force the other away from the start line, trying to block his return and make him start late. A whole series of other rules come into play at this stage which are probably a bit beyond the scope of this article btu which ultimately see a fascinating dance between the two boats right up until about 45 seconds before the start gun is fired when someone must led back to the start line. The time and distance judgement of the helmsman comes into play as each boat jostles with trying arrive at their favourite end of thestart line at full speed just as the start gun is fired. Arrive too early and one risks being over the start line before the gun goes and having to lose valuable distance by having to come back and start correctly. Arrive too late or badly influenced by the other boat and a similar disadvantage prevails.

Incidents will often occur when the two boats come together. The ultimate aim in the pre-starrt is to work out an advantage by start time. This may only be a fractional advantage but it ca affect the whole race.

Skippers and tacticians will have a race strategy for after the start. Years of collecting data about tide, meteorology and local conditions will help them decide which side of the upwind leg is favoured relative to the phasing of the wind shfts and other factors and which side will give maximum speed and tactical advantage. If the right side of the course is the preferred side before the pre start, the helmsman will try to 'win the right' by positioning himself on the other boats right hand side. This will allow him to tack off freely to the right while the boat to the left will nt be able to tack onto port in front of the starboard boat without infringing. This of course assumes that both boats consider the right to be favoured, they may not both agre and be happy to go their seperate ways.

The number of variables that affect the decision on thestarting line are enormous, and having only touched some of the wind and tactical possibilities it has to be said that this is one of the major areas where the sailors skills and experience make a significant difference. A good start gives on boat a great early advantage.

Later on during the race itself, decisions about which side of the course to protect change and boats will always try and position themselves to be on the inside track when turning the marks at the top and bottom of the course. As the boats sail upwind the leading boat will also try and position itself between the next mark and the opposition rarely seperating from th trailing boat. The trailing boat will always try and escape from this close cover, and the ensueing manouevres are what are known as tacking duels. Both boats try to force each other into making mistakes, the more manouevres carried out, the higher the physical and mental workload on all crew members and the greater the chance of one or the other boat making an error or breaking down. It has been known for tacking duels to last for a whole leg of the course which can result in up to fifty tacks. Physical fitness is paramount.

At mark roundings a whole set of different rules apply bringing into play more oprotunities for mistakes and fouls to be commited: Basically the boat on the inside track starts with the advantage but he should he put about onto the the other tack and foul the other boat he loses that advantage. The approach to the mark is a key time for all on board if it is a close race, which is one of the reasons there are so many members of the rains trust or afterguard on modern Americas Cup boats.

The downwind leg has many similarities with the upwind leg from the point of view of a favoured side of the course, although it is not necessarily the same side as when sailing upwind. Downwind things happen a bit more slowly because of the relative speeds of the boats but the major difference has to do with the advantage lying with the trailing boat in terms of dictating the strategy. The clouds of sail set offwind caus ea large wind shadow fro several boatlengths downwind of the trailing boat and the skipper of the trialing boat will be trying to position himself so that his wind shadow falls on the sails of the leader, and hence slows him down sufficiently to be passed. The leader will be doing his best to avoid this wind shadow and gybe away, perhaps to the unfavoured side of the course to avoid it, and so the battle goes on.

There are many intricate rule and strategy issues constantly at play in match racing. By it's cerebral nature sailing attracts people that dedicate themselvees to solving these complicated issues in real time. From the outside it looks like two boats sailing; from the inside it is the very pinnacle if the sport. Sailors have to use these strategies and tactics all the time, umpires have to predict the next play and enforce any rules and the commentators have to understand what is going on so as to bring th significance of it all to the public. Just as with american football, watching a feww races with a good commentator and the game becomes much clearer.

Briton Andy Green , 27, is one of the coaching staff for the Aloha Racing syndicate, sailing in the afterguard of the syndicates new boat.
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