Defence force

New Zealand has become the first country to win and successfully defend the America’s Cup twice. And they've got Australia to thank for it.

Written by Rebecca Hayter

18 March 2021

The Aussies and the Kiwis love to battle over things – Phar Lap and pavlova, for instance. But there’s no doubt that New Zealand’s voyage to the America’s Cup began when Australia won it in 1983.

Twelve years later, the Kiwis won the Cup in San Diego. They defended it in Auckland in 2000, lost it appallingly in 2003, won it back in Bermuda in 2017 and defended it successfully in Auckland this month.

Its worthy Challenger was Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. One of the prime characters – and may we just say that he has done his country proud – was Jimmy Spithill.

He won the America’s Cup for Oracle in 2013 against a challenge from New Zealand and lost to the Kiwis four years later. With a 1–1 record of winning and losing, he says he’s not done yet.

In some ways, to Kiwis, he’s been the Australian version of Dennis Conner, albeit younger. But throughout this regatta, he’s become a media darling who still likes to spar with a journalist occasionally – and he continues to give the best sound bites in the business.


Who could forget: “I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here? What a story that would be.”

He said that in 2013 before going on to lead his team from a 1–8 deficit to a 9–8 win.

Roll on to 16 March 2021 when Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli was three points down to New Zealand’s six, several journalists threw him a cue to reprise the line but he didn’t take the bait. Now we know why. As they said later, the Italian team with the Aussie co-skipper knew they were taking a knife to a gunfight.

But the camaraderie and respect among the competing sailors has been inspiring. Jimmy Spithill has said many times he is up against the best team in the world. Good on him, his laughing Italian co-skipper Francesco Bruni and their leader Max Sirena – the man who somehow managed to meld this duo of strong but different personalities into the helmsmanship that won the Prada Cup and challenged Emirates Team New Zealand in a lead-swapping race-fest.

When the Defender first lined up against Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli on 10 March, it was impossible to pick the stronger team; the even score three days later wasn’t helping either.

Italy was race-hardened but knew little about its opposition. New Zealand had collected and run yottabytes of data on Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli through its simulators but was race-rusty.

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli’s best chance was to collect wins off the Kiwis before they got up to speed, but the Kiwis were learning all the time. As Emirates Team New Zealand’s Glenn Ashby admitted: “They were pulling off manoeuvres that we didn’t think were possible early on.”

Going into the final day, the scoreboard against Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli was 6–3. By then we’d seen seven days of racing, including Races 7, 8 and 9 in which the skills of both teams were like maritime gymnastics at Olympic level.

The final race took place in just over 10 knots of wind – a mid-zone that favoured the teams evenly. Spithill wanted the right and entered the box first. He gybed slowly, hoping to lure Burling into chasing him down. But Burling wanted the right too and sacrificed some speed to take the windward spot at the start.

Almost immediately, he tacked to claim the favoured right-hand pressure and the return tack with starboard rights: exactly what Spithill had wanted.

For the rest of the race, Burling played from the match-racing handbook. Italy followed New Zealand around the first mark by 7 seconds and threw all their power into staying in touch with the Kiwis downwind. Both boats had a slightly messy gybe at the second gate, but the Italians’ gybe was more expensive. In the slightly stronger breeze than we’d seen in some of the earlier days, the Kiwis’ smaller foils, estimated to be 30 percent smaller than Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli’s, made them the fastest boat. They won by 46 seconds.

The 36th America’s Cup was a clean battle on the water and, despite the losses, it seems all men have enjoyed the high level of racing.

Sirena has a couple of regrets about opportunities lost: “We knew they were going to improve big time during the series because it was a long series, unfortunately. I was keen to do thirteen races on day one,” he said.

“But we want to race against the best and we’ve been lucky to sail against one of the best teams I’ve ever raced in my America’s Cup career.”


Race wrap

Race 1, ETNZ: Spithill attacked just after the start and just missed a penalty against New Zealand’s Te Rehutai. ETNZ led from there.

Race 2, LRPP: Burling tried to get a hook in the pre-start and missed. He followed LRPP around the course and lost speed tacking into dirty air.

Race 3, LRPP: Italy made a lee-bow tack on an AC75 look like a walk in the park and won from there.

Race 4, ETNZ: Italy would have liked another lee-bow tack but couldn’t live on ETNZ’s hip. ETNZ had found a new mode, got ahead and made a serious gain when LRPP did a bad tack.

Race 5, LRPP: ETNZ sailed into a wall of air and stopped in the pre-start.

Race 6, ETNZ: LRPP sailed into a wall of air and stopped in the pre-start. The sailing world suddenly realised that AC75s sail so fast they gybe back into their own wind shadow.

Race 7, ETNZ: LRPP’s jib was too big and slowed them down.

Race 8, ETNZ: it was ETNZ’s turn to be underpowered and it fell off its foils when it gybed into LRPP’s wind shadow. Meanwhile LRPP fell off its foils. ETNZ recovered first.

Race 9, ETNZ: the lead swapped multiple times on the flukey venue of Course C. LRPP defended most of the way but this was Peter Burling’s backyard and a lucky wind shift put the ETNZ back in the race.

Race 10, ETNZ: Peter Burling got the right side of the start line and controlled the race from there, winning the America’s Cup.



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