The first day of the second Preliminary Regatta of the 37th America’s Cup opened hot and sunny on the Red Sea. It was INEOS Britannia’s shore team who were first to work up a sweat. The boat was being prepared for launch when hydraulic oil was found leaking from the starboard flap. A systems check discovered that the hydraulic pressure was falling, and after further investigation the team established that the leak came from the seal around the rod that controls the movement of the flap.
The repair involved changing out the ram to replace the defective seal. “We’ve two and a half hours till the race starts, and about two hours of work to do, so it should give us thirty minutes to splash the boat, sails up and get into it,” commented Andrew Henderson, AC40 Shore Team Manager. In the end, Athena launched just 20 minutes before the start of racing. It was not the preparation that Ben Ainslie and his sailing team had planned for the first race.
The conditions they faced were difficult, with a forecast for a 4-8 knot north-westerly breeze, similar to the light air seen in Vilanova. At the start of Race 1 — after just a few minutes of practice time for the British crew — the wind hovered just above the legal minimum for racing of 6.5 knots. What followed was a remarkable display of performance under pressure in the trickiest of conditions, as the British team stepped up and delivered a second place.
It was all about not catching a pothole or tripping on a hurdle in the light winds. A lot of the place changes came as a result of the splashdowns, with three boats dropping off their foils in the first race. INEOS Britannia sailed one flawless “dry lap” after another though, chasing Emirates Team New Zealand all the way around the three lap course to take the second place.
Everyone was hoping for more wind for the second race, but it didn’t materialise and conditions remained just as difficult. This time everyone was up and running on their foils at the start gun. At the top mark it was Emirates Team New Zealand, this time followed by Alinghi Red Bull Racing and INEOS Britannia. The Kiwis managed to extend in the clear air, and while the British crew wrestled second place from the Swiss at the end of the first lap, they gave it up again on the second. And that was how they finished, after a charge from American Magic ended with another splashdown.
If anything, conditions for Race 3 were even more challenging, and the course was shortened a little to make sure the race was completed within the time limit. The start saw three boats over the line, including INEOS Britannia. The penalties were cleared quickly, but not before Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli had jumped out to what would prove to be an unassailable lead. Initially they were pursued by Emirates Team New Zealand, but they too touched down, and it was Orient Express that took up the chase.
An action-packed race saw almost everyone going into “displacement mode” at some point. INEOS Britannia and Alinghi Red Bull Racing fought for the final place on the podium, but in the end the British team had to concede it to the Swiss, and ended the day with a score sheet of 2, 3, 4. It puts them into joint third place, tied with Alinghi Red Bull Racing, with everything to play for on Race Day 2.
“We’ve been having a few issues with the starboard side flap on our boat, not just here in Jeddah but for a long time now,” commented Team Principal, skipper and helmsman, Ben Ainslie. “I have to say a big shout out to the Kiwis (Emirates Team New Zealand) who are trying to help us figure out exactly what’s been going on, plus our Shore Team who did a brilliant job getting us out for racing today. It was definitely a bit touch and go for a while.”
“Our racing performance is much improved from Vilanova,” continued Ainslie. “There is that old saying ‘you learn a lot from your losses’ and that is true for us in many ways. That’s when you find out whether or not you’ve got a team that are willing to dig deep and come back from it. And we have, which is great. There is still a long way to go, but we’re really pleased with how the team have responded. We’ve got ourselves back into the mix.”