Land Rover BAR count their blessings
Sir Ben Ainslie's attempt to return the America's Cup to Britain was still on track yesterday, but only just after his Land Rover BAR boat was moments from sinking in the wake of a collision before the start of a race.
Rita 1 was left looking like the victim of a shark attack after the crash with SoftBank Team Japan on Saturday, but remarkably made it back on to the waters of the Great Sound yesterday — it took an all-night repair job. However, conclusive defeats by Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand left Ainslie's team looking off the pace again, having shown great improvement to beat Artemis Racing in their opening match of the Louis Vuitton America's Cup Qualifiers.
Ainslie was penalised for the clash with Japan as the two boats jostled for position, the second time in a few weeks he has been blamed for a startline coming-together, having gone into the back on New Zealand. That time he did more damage to the other boat; this time it was Land Rover BAR's boat that came off the worse.
During the race, which Japan won, the boat raced on its foils with the hull out of the water. When it returned to the base, it quickly began taking on water. Team members rushed to help to bail out water before it was lifted up by a crane, where it dangled while the water rushed out through the hole.
“We very, very nearly sunk,” Martin Whitmarsh, the Land Rover BAR chief executive, said. “It was foiled back, so we didn't take too much water on. When we got back here and went down on the hull, very quickly it began filling with water.
“If we had left it in the water for a few more minutes, it would have sunk. You've got all the electronics, everything. Recovering is one thing, but there's a whole range of things that would have been destroyed. We were very close to the end of the campaign.”
As well as breaking through the outer carbon-fibre skin, the smash broke the inner skin and seriously damaged the aluminium honeycomb that forms the structure of the hull. In total, a 15ft section of the outer skin was fractured and boat builders were forced to cut away large sections of the hull before the work to rebuild it could commence.
“When I left the base at 9pm, there was a 6ft hole in it,” Giles Scott, the tactician, said. “I honestly thought we'd be lucky to get out [to race again] when I saw that. The guys did a pretty monumental effort.
“What was great was we got in, the boat almost sunk on the moorings and the guys started working on it and there was a proper buzz. None of the shore guys were like ‘we've got to stay up all night'. They got the grinders out and were at it. They were awesome. I came in and they all looked broken, but all had smiles on their faces. It's not a perfect finish, but the integrity of the boat is fine.”
The accident was a blow after they had produced a shock to defeat Artemis in the opening race on Saturday. After being written off as having a slow boat, a new rudder was fitted that seemed to give a big boost in straight-line speed. But in the pre-race manoeuvre for the second race, against Japan, Dean Barker, the opposing skipper, hooked behind the Land Rover BAR boat, which skipped out of the water and landed on the Japan crew on the starboard side of the boat. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the boat was badly damaged,
“I've actually found it quite emotional to see what they've done,” Whitmarsh said. “We knew it was bad, but when we saw the skin come off, it was a whole lot worse. It was incredible teamwork; there were about 45 people on that job. Every time you went in, you would keep finding more and more damage.
“The drive was to get back out, but we did not want to compromise the boat. We could have lost the two points from today and taken more time to repair it, but we are a racing team and that is what we do.”
The effect the damage had on the speed of the boat was not clear yesterday, as lighter winds on a hot day made for tactical affairs on the Great Sound, but the defeats by Oracle and New Zealand by 39 seconds and 88 seconds respectively, made for grim viewing, as handling mistakes in both races resulted in the British team giving up plenty of distance.
At least the repair job held firm, with a diver inspecting the damaged area between races.
“Our boat needs more repair but I don't think it affected the outcome,” Ainslie said. “We had the lead in both races, but unfortunately didn't get it right. Boat speed probably wasn't a defining issue today. We made some handling errors and also a couple of tactical errors.
“Today was about sailing well and trying to avoid a couple of the tough spots out there.”
BAR look almost certain to progress into the challenger play-Offs, which start on Sunday, courtesy of their win over Artemis and the two-point bonus they received for winning the America's Cup World Series.
Oracle also beat Japan yesterday to head the standings in the Qualifiers, although they did lose to Artemis, who had earlier suffered a shock defeat by Groupama Team France. The French had been expected to be the whipping boys of the round-robin stages, but after that win, some teams, BAR included, could be looking nervously over their shoulders. Land Rover BAR face France in today's first race.
“Everyone can beat anyone,” Scott said. “It's great for the sport. It means we're racing, we're not just piloting a boat that is either faster or slower. There are decisions to be made. If you sail clean, sail the right way, you are going to win races, which is how it should be. You've got to watch out for everyone. The boat was performing as well as it was. We came out swinging against Oracle and we weren't far off their pace. That's encouraging for us.
“We have to take the positives from the last couple of days. A lot of people are surprised with how well we are doing.”