Paul Cayard wouldn't call it all luck, but he got the best of wildly shifting winds on Hauraki Gulf today and plucked victory from seemingly certain defeat in the America's Cup challenger finals.
The 1-minute 33-second victory by his AmericaOne over Italy's Prada evened the series at 1-1 and kept the Americans firmly in the hunt for the right to advance to the Cup match against Team New Zealand Feb. 19.
The two are deadlocked in a best-of-nine fight for survival. If today's race was a harbinger of things to come, the psychological cost of this series could be severe to everyone--winners, losers, even spectators.
"There was luck in it, yeah," said Cayard, "but we saw the situation developing and made a pretty decisive move" to seize the lead halfway through the race. "It was a tough call. If it didn't work, everybody would be asking why we did it."
Cayard's team took off on a downwind flyer with a ripped spinnaker, heading into the spectator fleet at the midway point in the race after rallying from almost two minutes.
It was a day of nonstop changes. The start was delayed almost an hour as organizers waited for easterly breezes to fill. Eventually they built to eight knots but never settled, shifting 115 degrees in the three-hour contest.
The fortunes of both teams rose and fell with the meandering wind. AmericaOne won the start but Prada was faster. The U.S. team fell so far behind by the first turning mark, Prada seemed likely to sail away to a commanding 2-0 series lead.
But Prada's 1:49 advantage at the first mark melted in a weird sequence of events. First Prada's crew fouled the spinnaker as the boats neared the second mark. The Italians twisted their chute into a perfect butterfly shape and AmericaOne closed to 1:04 behind.
The fun was just beginning. Chaos reigned beyond the mark, where hundreds of spectator craft had convened to see the rounding. An 80-degree wind shift forced the race committee to set a new upwind course direction and the spectator craft sat directly in the way.
Prada skipper Francesco deAngelis tacked away from the mayhem into clear air. Cayard, sensing the breeze freshening ahead, sailed into the midst of the startled spectator boats, which scattered like frightened sheep.
AmericaOne picked up a fresh wind and began to gain. Prada tacked back to cover, but was too late. AmericaOne sailed briefly into a lead, then lost it again to Prada's superior speed as the boats charged up the course, side by side in 10 knots of wind.
Prada's margin was only 18 seconds at the third turning mark--a two-boat-length lead at the halfway point in the 18 1/2-mile race.
But once more the spectator fleet was in the way after another wind shift of 30 degrees. Prada gybed away to escape the mob but Cayard played his old hand, sailing into the clustered craft. His troubles compounded when his bright green spinnaker split up a seam as it inflated. He sailed on through the spectators with a 15-foot gash in the sail threatening to blow out at any moment, shouting angrily at his crew to sort out the mess.
Miraculously the rip held until a new sail was hoisted.
After two spinnaker changes, Cayard and crew looked up to find they were not only still in the race, but in stronger breeze with better speed and had passed the Italians, who had drifted off to the far side of the course and into light winds.
The lead was commanding. AmericaOne turned the fourth turning mark ahead by a staggering 1:29--a turnabout of more than three minutes since the first mark.
"Everybody, chill," Cayard could be heard telling his tension-wracked team. "Take a deep breath."
They could afford to, finally, with a lead that not even the swift Prada could overcome. Cayard could take special comfort in the reversal. He had chastised himself publicly for missing two opportunities to win the first race on Wednesday, which Prada took by 24 seconds.