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America's Cup Diary - May 2007

The early phases of the Louis Vuitton Cup have been working out beautifully for Alinghi. Valencia has been dogged by an almost complete absence of breeze, and the race organisers managed only three days' racing from the first nine days of competition. The 11 challenger teams are fast running out of sufficient days in which to complete the Round Robin series, before 11 gets cut to the four teams who go through to the Semi Finals.

For an event that has been elevated to a higher commercial status than ever before in its 156-year history, this is a desperate state of affairs. Somewhere in the world Russell Coutts will be saying, "I told you so." Before he fell out with the top management at Alinghi, Coutts made it clear that he believed Cascais on Portugal's Atlantic seaboard would be the better sailing venue. And so it would appear.

Now, that's not to say that Valencia can't deliver beautiful breezes. The first time I visited the city was for an IMS World Championship in August 2001, and every day a fantastic sea breeze blew in by lunchtime. A solid, reliable 16 to 18 knots for a whole week. For this reason, Valencia has come to be known as the 'Fremantle of the Mediterranean', but that really is pushing it. In any case, this strong sea-breeze does not usually kick in with any reliability until early July, by which time the strong Mediterranean summer sun pours some serious heat on to the mountain range inland of the city, creating a superb thermal effect.

The America's Cup Match which commences on 23 June might just happen late enough in the year to pick up those reliable thermal breezes, but the bulk of the Louis Vuitton Cup is unlikely to be so fortunate. To be fair to the organisers, they have been particularly unlucky with the run of breeze for the Round Robins, although the prognosis for this time of year was never that great.

Some pundits have even had cause to believe that this whole scenario has been carefully masterminded by Alinghi - to have the challengers battle away and wear themselves out in a set of conditions that is likely to be completely irrelevant to the stronger winds expected in the America's Cup Match. For me, that is perhaps a conspiracy theory too far. After all, Alinghi still has to test and trial its second new boat, SUI 100, which as yet has barely gone sailing.

The lack of sailing has given Port America's Cup plenty of time to speculate over another Alinghi-fuelled rumour, that the Defender's design team has found a smart way of interpreting the Version 5 rule such that their new boat has a canting keel. Actually, not really a canting keel at all, so much as a keel that does not deflect under load like most keels do. The gossip goes that Alinghi have found a way of linking the rig loads into the support structure for the keel. So when the boat leans over and the windward shroud is loaded up with the force of the sails and the weight of the mast, the rigging then hoists one side of the keel structure and stops the fin falling off to leeward as much as it would on a standard America's Cup Class yacht.

This has got other designers around Port America's Cup hopping mad. Well, of course it would, if you've just been outsmarted by those baddies over in the Swiss camp. There's not much point in getting upset about it though. It's all down to what chief measurer Ken McAlpine deems to be legal within the Version 5 rules, although don't doubt the fact that dozens of lawyers will be kindly offering their own interpretation of 'the facts' to Ken along the way.

Another view of the whole 'can they, can't they' canting keel saga is that it's just a load of smoke and mirrors carefully leaked by Alinghi to throw everyone else into a tailspin. Not that there's much any of the challengers could do about it now. Not only is the lack of breeze bad for racing, it's bad for testing too, so it would take a brave or foolhardy team to make such a bold design change so late in the game.

The other side to this, as we mentioned just now, is that bad breeze in Valencia also prevents Alinghi from testing their wonder boat, if indeed that's what SUI 100 is. But they shouldn't feel too bad even if they do have to wheel out the 'old boat', last year's vintage SUI 91. Alinghi used this boat in anger for the first time in Louis Vuitton Act 13, the final fleet racing Act in early April, just before the challenger series proper began.

The Defender trounced the opposition. Helmsman Ed Baird's time-on-distance judgement at the start was a little bit off key, but it didn't seem to matter as time and again Alinghi bounced back from bad situations to come up smelling of roses. The Swiss won four of the seven races. Brad Butterworth and his team must have retired to the boat shed comforted by the fact that they have a boat that is at least the equal of anything the challengers can put up.

However, a number of the top teams were using their second boats, either unwilling to show their best hand to Alinghi or plain fearful of incurring major damage on a congested race track with 12 ACC yachts charging at each other. That proved to be a wise precaution, as the fleet racing produced a lot of near-misses and one moment that was anything but a near-miss. As United Internet Team Germany approached a busy windward mark on port tack, skipper Jesper Bank had to pull a last-minute manoeuvre in a bid to avoid +39 Challenge. It was all too little too late as the German mast clashed with the Italian mast, bringing it down in a shower of carbon shards and metal rigging. Iain Percy and his +39 crew were lucky to escape unharmed. This was the most dramatic moment among a number of thrilling moments during the fleet racing. The match racing in the Louis Vuitton Cup had a lot to live up to.

But live up to it, it has. When the wind has seen fit to blow in Valencia, the match racing has produced a major upset on each of the first three days. First it was Mascalzone Latino's turn to defeat the Kiwis. Then on the second day, Shosholoza nearly caused a major upset when the South Africans led BMW Oracle for more than a lap, until Chris Dickson's crew ground them down and crossed the finish first. So upset of day 2 instead went to Areva Challenge, the French underdogs vanquishing the much fancied Desafio Espanol.

On the third day's racing, Shosholoza said they would be disappointed if they didn't beat Luna Rossa. Well, the South Africans weren't disappointed and they did beat the top Italian team. Immediately after that bruising defeat, Luna Rossa then had to face BMW Oracle. This was a humdinger of a match, with the two boats never separated by more than 15 seconds. By the finish, the gap was just six seconds, but it was the Americans who prevailed yet again. BMW Oracle is looking strong, and at this early stage looks favourite for winning the Louis Vuitton Cup. That said, there are few who would bet against Alinghi defending the America's Cup.