SAN FRANCISCO — With the Golden Gate Bridge looming to his right, Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker hit the starting line and immediately got his 72-foot catamaran speeding across the tops of the waves on hydrofoils.
The America’s Cup challenger trials were underway on San Francisco Bay and the Kiwis were clearly in control.
Of course, it helped that there was no opponent.
Emirates Team New Zealand sailed alone around the course Sunday – at one point hitting 42.8 knots, or 49 mph – to collect the first point of the regatta. Their scheduled opponent, Italy’s Luna Rossa, boycotted, saying it won’t race until an international jury hears protests regarding rule changes made after Andrew “Bart” Simpson, of Artemis Racing, was killed in a capsize May 9.
While Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena said the Italians were sitting out on principle, there’s also the chance they’re not up to speed enough to face the Kiwis. A few weeks ago, Luna Rossa was soundly beaten by the Kiwis in a practice race.
Luna Rossa sailed three practice laps Saturday. America’s Cup CEO Stephen Barclay said the Italians have a new wing sail and hydrofoils, the two major speed-producing components on the high-performance cats.
“It’s a bit like putting a new engine or a turborcharger in a car,” Barclay said. “So we’d love to see them perform, and I think the fans would, too.
“Max said it was because of principles. But we saw them sailing around yesterday and they looked good. They looked strong,” Barclay said. “A couple weeks ago we watched them out there and maybe they didn’t look so strong. But clearly they’ve improved. We thought it would be great to see them take on Emirates Team New Zealand, which looks like the form horse at the moment.”
Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa and Artemis are the only three challengers. Artemis’s first boat was destroyed in the capsize that killed Simpson and the Swedish-based team won’t have its new boat ready for sea trials for about two weeks.
That makes it unlikely Artemis will be ready to compete until the Louis Vuitton Cup semifinals in early August.
The next time New Zealand and Italy are scheduled to race is Saturday in the opening race of round-robin two.
The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup will face defending champion Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup beginning Sept. 7.
This is supposed to be the most eye-popping America’s Cup ever, with the sleek, space-age catamarans sailing three times the speed of the wind against a stunning backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and the Transamerica pyramid.
The Kiwis did their best to put on a show Sunday. As they sailed past the waterfront toward the finish line, they were going about 38 knots, or nearly 44 mph.
It’s also the first time in the regatta’s 162-year history that it’s been contested inshore rather than miles out to sea.
But the regatta’s been bogging down even before it started.
The accident that killed Simpson led regatta director Iain Murray to make 37 safety recommendations, including changes to the rudders that he says will make the catamarans more stable, particularly as they speed downwind riding only on hydrofoils.
Luna Rossa and Team New Zealand protested, saying Murray doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally change the rules. They say their boats were designed and built under the old rules and they don’t have time to build new rudders and, perhaps more importantly, test them. They’ve also said they feel the change gives an advantage to Oracle Team USA, which will spend the next two months testing its two boats.
“After May 9, the game changed,” Barclay said. “That’s the sad reality.”
Once the teams studied Murray’s rules changes in detail, “their competitive juices took over,” Barclay added.
Team New Zealand filed a protest with the International Jury over the changes on June 28. Luna Rossa followed suit.