After years of plotting and preparation, it’s “go time” for the three America’s Cup challengers.
Teams from Great Britain, Italy and the United States began racing in the Prada Cup Challenger Selection Series Friday afternoon off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand. Racing gets underway each day between 3 and 4 p.m. local time, which is 9 and 10 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
American Magic, the New York Yacht Club entry led by Anne Arundel County native Terry Hutchinson, has been installed as the betting favorite to reach the America’s Cup final against defender Emirates Team New Zealand.
The U.S. syndicate sailed well in the America’s Cup World Series exhibition regatta in late December, placing second behind the defender. American Magic was the only team to beat Team New Zealand in a race and rebounded to defeat Luna Rossa after dropping the opening race between the two.
“That December event was a great check-in to see where all the teams stand, and we were pleased with our performance. It was great to take a race off Team New Zealand,” Hutchinson told The Capital Wednesday night, less than 24 hours before beginning the Prada Cup with scheduled races against Ineos Team UK and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli.
“You gain confidence that everything we have done up until this point was good work, yet you leave that regatta knowing you will have to be a lot faster to win the Challenger Selection Series and have a chance of winning the America’s Cup.”
Ineos, the British syndicate led by Sir Ben Ainslie, was a mess during the World Series — displaying inferior boat speed and handling while going winless. However, just three weeks later, the Brits beat TNZ in pre-start maneuvers and were racing on even terms on the upwind leg before the defender endured a spectacular capsize.
Hutchinson said all three challengers have improved dramatically since squaring off last month. Patriot, the second AC75 built by the American campaign, showed superb speed in all wind ranges during the exhibition regatta, but the skipper and CEO knows further improvement is required.
Principal designer Marcelino Botin continues to make modifications to the inside and outside of the foiling monohull.
“After the World Series, we got pretty heavily into just straight-line boat speed development and then from there working on maneuvering and how to best keep Patriot up and out of the water,” Hutchinson said. “I think we’ve done everything we possibly can up to this point to prepare ourselves. From here, it’s about maintaining our strengths and improving our weaknesses.”
American Magic’s only negative moment during the World Series came during its second race against Team New Zealand when, after rounding a mark, the boat stopped foiling. It was game over as helmsman Dean Barker and flight controller Andrew Campbell could not get Patriot out of the water.
Coming off the foils is more costly in light air (winds of eight knots or less) as it takes time to execute liftoff, Hutchinson said.
“There’s a splash down in light air where the boat just sticks to the water and doesn’t pop out and you have to work to re-accelerate and get it going again. That’s catastrophic,” he said.
“If you tack and the boat touches the water in 14 knots of breeze, [observers] are not even going to know about it because the boat just keeps going. In that type of wind range, it’s not catastrophic at all.”
Traditional match racing tactics are in play during the upwind starts, which Hutchinson called a “great equalizer.” Longtime America’s Cup followers were pleased to see there were some passing opportunities on the course during the closer World Series races.
The Prada Cup Challenger Selection Series will consist of four round-robins of three races each. All three syndicates will complete eight races with the winner on points moving directly to the finals. Meanwhile, the other two teams will compete in a best-of-seven semifinals. The Prada Cup champion will be determined using a best-of-13 format.
Hutchinson, a lifelong resident of Harwood, was succinct when asked what American Magic needs to improve over the next 10 weeks to emerge as challenger to Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup final.
“Boat speed. We simply need to get faster,” he said. “That comes in boat setup, sailing techniques and understanding our platform as well as we can. Categorically, we have to be faster.”
Hutchinson was onboard Patriot for the opening day of the World Series and his strategical advice to Barker helped American Magic during its narrow victory over Team New Zealand. However, a stomach virus sidelined the 1986 St. Mary’s High graduate for the final two days of the exhibition series.
“Fortunately, Jim Turner stepped in and the team did not miss a beat,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson has captured dozens of world championships and is a two-time Rolex Yachtsman of the Year based largely on his tactical expertise. However, he had to earn a place on the boat as a grinder, first and foremost.
American Magic has a very deep roster of grinders, and the 52-year-old Hutchinson may pick and choose days to take off and recharge the batteries.
“I’m planning on racing tomorrow and hope to be on the boat as much as possible,” Hutchinson said. “I’m there to lend decision-making support to Dean when applicable and make sure during all the pre-race homework we have a solid strategy.”
There is no magic ingredient to winning the Prada Cup, and Hutchinson plans to approach the grueling series the same way he has any major regatta. That means closing out races when Patriot leads after the first cross. If the U.S. team trails around the top mark, it must stay in touch and be in position to capitalize if the opponent makes a mistake.
“Consistency wins regattas. It’s no different from anything we’ve ever done for the last 20 years of racing,” he said. “There is no reason to do anything differently because the formula for winning has never been broken.”