Team New Zealand has retained the America’s Cup, beating Italian challenger Luna Rossa 7-3 in the 36th match for sailing’s oldest trophy.
The defender came into the sixth day of racing Wednesday at match point, with a 6-3 lead in the best-of-13 race series. It won the 10th race by 46 seconds in a shifty north-easterly breeze to complete its defense of the famous Auld Mug.
Team New Zealand crossed the finish line just after 5 p.m. local time in Auckland to a cacophony of horns and sirens from more than 1,000 spectator boats and the cheers of tens of thousands of fans who watched from vantage points ashore in COVID-free New Zealand.
Spectators thronged the downtown Viaduct Harbor to watch Team New Zealand return from the racecourse and later saw the crew lift the America’s Cup, the 170-year-old silver trophy which has long attracted the world’s best sailors.
“We’ve had messages from everyone from the Prime Minister to high school kids,” helmsman Peter Burling said. “We’re just blown away by being able to achieve what we have as a group and win another America’s Cup.”
The victory was New Zealand’s fourth in an America’s Cup match after triumphs in 1995, 2000 and 2017, and its second successful defense. The Kiwis had a 5-0 win over Luna Rossa on the same waters 20 years ago. Italy is yet to win the America’s Cup.
Luna Rossa was a gallant challenger and chivalrous runner-up. After congratulating Team New Zealand, helmsman Francesco Bruni said Luna Rossa had answered its doubters.
“I think we proved to the world that we can do it,” he said. “It’s been hard luck the last couple of days but definitely we’ve done a fantastic job as a team.”
With its nation on tenterhooks, Team New Zealand sailed a faultless race Wednesday on a racecourse full of shifts and pitfalls to win the match at its first opportunity.
Disadvantaged at the start by starboard entry, it sailed flawlessly in the pre-start to win the right side of the course which was favored early as the wind tipped 15 degrees to the right.
After twice crossing in front of Luna Rossa, the Kiwis headed to the left and rounded the first mark 7 seconds ahead. Team New Zealand headed back to the left at the top of the first run but the race closed up in lighter wind at the bottom of the course.
Halfway through the six-leg race New Zealand was 27 seconds ahead. Rounding the last mark it led by 49 seconds and, with no sign of tension on the New Zealand boat, the race was all but over.
In retrospect, the early reports that Team New Zealand had the faster boat seem to have been borne out.
The New Zealanders had stressed speed in the design process, coming up with a flat and aerodynamic hull and smaller foils which create less drag.
Luna Rossa had taken a different approach, going for larger foils for more stability and maneuverability.
Those contrasting design approaches were evident in the two races on each of the first three days of the match, when the teams traded wins to 3-3.
Observers began to doubt New Zealand’s speed advantage but speed on its own isn’t decisive. On the short and narrow courses of this America’s Cup, the races were being won by the boat that won the start. Like a slow person on an escalator, the leading boat could stick out its elbows and prevent the boat behind from overtaking.
That also was due in part to the wind effects of the massive sails. When racing in close proximity, the leading boat casts a huge wind shadow over the trailing boat: helsman Peter Burling described it as taking a chunk out of the wind.
That changed in the seventh race when Team New Zealand pulled off a pass for the first time in the series. Luna Rossa had been expert in protecting its leads but in the seventh race it gave Team New Zealand separation and the defender, sailing free, was able to bring its speed edge to bear.
The eighth race is the one for which this match will be long remembered. Again, it began close with Luna Rossa in front and Team New Zealand trying to pass. The defender, quick downwind, looked likely to roll past Luna Rossa on the fourth leg. Instead, it gybed in Luna Rossa’s wind shadow, lost speed and fell off its foils.
Luna Rossa sailed to a lead of more than 4 minutes but, after trying to tack in a dying breeze, also came off the foils. Team New Zealand rose up, regained speed and sailed past, from a four-minute deficit to a four-minute lead.
New Zealand broke the deadlock and took a 5-3 lead.
The ninth race on Tuesday was the closest of the match. Luna Rossa led again but by only one second at the first gate and by no more than nine seconds around the next three marks. But it split from Team New Zealand at the leeward mark, headed to the left side of the course and the New Zealanders showed speed again to sail past.
Eventually it may be regretted that all races in the match were sailed in light winds and the full potential of these amazing boats wasn’t seen.
But there were no regrets for Team New Zealand as St. Patrick’s Day 2021 became a date of importance in the history of the America’s Cup.
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