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America's Cup Diary - August 2007

How much difference can one man make to an America's Cup campaign? After all, the biggest teams run to well in excess of a hundred people, from the sailors to the shore crew, the boatbuilders, marketers, cooks, admin staff, and so on. Surely any one person is just a cog in the wheel. Of course, you know that's not the case. The long history of the America's Cup has always been shaped by a few highly influential individuals with the passion and/or expertise to make a massive impact.

Paul Cayard could certainly be considered one of the most influential personalities of the modern era. In his early thirties he skippered the ambitious Il Moro di Venezia campaign for the 1992 America's Cup. In his late thirties he headed out on his first voyage around the world as skipper of the Whitbread 60 EF Language, and won the Whitbread Race at his first attempt. Only last year he came second in the Volvo Ocean Race, despite the fact that Pirates of the Caribbean was just about the last boat to be launched and was severely underprepared.

His track record suggests he knows how to get the best out of people, and how to organise a campaign. Presumably it was the San Franciscan's ability to make things happen that has earned him his recent appointment to Spanish Cup campaign Desaf?�o Espa?�ol 2007 as a sporting and technical consultant. It's only a two-month gig, though, so how much Cayard can achieve in such a short time remains to be seen.

"My first impression of Desaf?�o is very professional," Cayard said at the announcement of his appointment. "They're doing a good job with the resources available. To be honest, it's been quite a while since I've been at the America's Cup. I last raced in 2000 with AmericaOne. So I'm hoping to make a good contribution and I think I have a few different ways to contribute, not only on the water. I think I can help them put some perspective on some of the things that you tend to spend a lot of time worrying about at the America's Cup, what things are important and what things aren't so important. Hopefully I can add something every day."

Cayard says that getting to the semi-finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup would be a great achievement for the Spanish. It's hard to imagine Desaf?�o getting any further than the semi-finals as the team has never shown itself to be in the same league as the Kiwis, the Americans or Luna Rossa. On the other hand, not reaching the semi-finals should be considered a failure too. The Spanish appear to have done many things right, buying a great 2003 package with the two OneWorld boats, securing Reichel-Pugh as the designers, gathering some strong international talent in the afterguard, and yet during the Louis Vuitton Acts they've rarely lived up to the sum of their parts. The Spanish just don't appear to have been firing on all cylinders. Perhaps Cayard could be the vital catalyst to really get the Spanish motoring. After all, if you can't do it in front of a home crowd, when can you do it?

Another team that, somewhat surprisingly, has seen the need to recruit outside talent is Alinghi. Highly accomplished Australian match racer Peter Gilmour has been hired as a match racing coach to get the best out of resident helmsmen Peter Holmberg and Ed Baird (Jochen Schuemann has also helmed for Alinghi regularly over the past two years but seems to have stepped away from that role now). While a gentleman off the race course, Gilmour has built a reputation as one of the most aggressive helmsmen on the match race circuit and it will be interesting to see how much of that aggression rubs off on his prot?�g?�s.

Meanwhile Alinghi has been using its final weeks in Dubai to conduct an in-house trial to determine which helmsman and crew will race in the Louis Vuitton Act 13, the fleet race taking place in Valencia this April. Staged in two parts, the so-called UBS Dubai Defender Trials has aimed to recreate the pressured environment that the team will encounter in the America's Cup Match at the end of June. Skipper Brad Butterworth explained: "We've been sailing with each other a lot over the last few months and the standard of crew work and the way that we sail the boats has improved since we started racing. There's a winner and a loser in these regattas and it puts a lot more pressure on the crew. We're trying to emulate a Louis Vuitton Cup and this is the best we can do."

With Baird and Holmberg taking it in turns to steer either the 2003 Cup winner SUI-64 or the 2006-generation SUI-91, it has been their chance to prove their mettle in a racing environment. In round one of the series Holmberg took an early lead only for Baird to come on strong at the end, leaving them tied on points, but with the tie-break falling in favour of Baird as winner of the last race. A few weeks later in round two, Baird was on dominant form and won this series 4-1. So 2-0 to the American, and yet at the conclusion of the series Alinghi refused to nominate Baird as helmsman for Act 13, Butterworth claiming: "It was too close to call."

Whatever Alinghi decides about its choice of helmsman, the months spent in Dubai have proven a wise investment of time. The weather in Valencia has been appalling for sailing this winter, with the teams that stayed put in Port America's Cup finding the wind either too weak or too strong for any serious training. Emirates Team New Zealand and BMW ORACLE Racing, both teams full of home-sick Kiwis, will be pleased that they made the journey back home to Auckland even if logistically it must have cost them a small fortune to fly their boats up to the northern hemisphere in enormous Antonov cargo planes.

Actually, for 80-foot Cup boats, flying really has become the only way to travel. Even Victory Challenge flew its two older boats out to Dubai for what amounted to little more than a month's training, a massive logistical exercise for such a short time. Yet considering the poor weather they left behind, the Swedes will have deemed it a worthwhile exercise. Skipper Magnus Holmberg brought in veteran British match racer Chris Law as his sparring partner and, although Law may be a grandfather, he still races like a young pretender, with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude that added some spice to the Victory training session. A little too much spice perhaps, as the fighting was so fierce that one boat even had its transom knocked off during a duel that got too close for comfort.

It's one thing to bash your old boats about. After all, while Magnus Holmberg and Chris Law were knocking ten bells out of each other in Dubai, Victory's pristine new boat SWE-96 was being delivered to Valencia. To bash your favourite race boat about is another matter, although this is what happened during a bit of friendly inter-team training in Valencia recently between Shosholoza and Mascalzone Latino. Just what was damaged isn't too clear, except that both teams retired to their sheds for a few days to lick their wounds.

The rumour mill suggests that in some friendly training between Areva Challenge and Luna Rossa, things have been going in favour of the French. If this is the case, then it would be quite a shock for the highly-fancied Italian team, but it is after all just a rumour. This is one of the most fun times in the America's Cup cycle, as the phony war gets into full swing in the final weeks leading up to the Louis Vuitton Cup. Rumours and counter-rumours abound, and knowing what to believe and what to ignore is next to impossible.

After all the months and years of speculation about who's doing what, who's fast and who's slow, it's frightening just how quickly the truth becomes apparent when two Cup boats line up in anger for the first time. Sometimes it's only a matter of minutes before it becomes clear that one boat has a clear speed advantage, both higher and faster into the wind, perhaps faster downwind too. Until that moment comes, however, every team can be allowed to dream that their designers and builders have delivered the perfect boat, and that the sailing team will sail like they've never sailed before.