The sport of sailing is pulling out rock star status right now in Japan; the Japanese people are seriously lapping up having America’s Cup racing in their country for the first time in its long and prestigious history.
Today (as well as one on one’s and a report on the practice racing which you will find below), I have a video from the press conference, with all of the team skippers, except for SoftBank Team Japan, who was represented by their General Manager, and Japanese sailor Kazuhiko “Fuku” Sofuku.
What an amazing way to bring sailing into the limelight ahead of a great stream of events here in Japan over the coming years, including the Sailing World Cup which will culminate with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. For those who have been lucky enough to visit Japan, or to know someone from Japan, you will know how incredibly proud they are of their country, and it is so lovely to see how happy all of my Japanese sailing friends are for the opportunity to have the America’s Cup here on their home soil.
For my Japanese friends and fellow adventurers, please see the video below of Fuku introducing the SoftBank Japan sailing team to the media (completely in Japanese).
You will see more of the passion that the Japanese have for this event visiting Japan in the video below, the literal swarm of people looking to talk, or just to get a picture of Fuku (I did speak to him one-on-one), as well as my interviews with the skippers, Ben Ainslie (Land Rover BAR), Nathan Outteridge (Artemis Racing), Franck Cammas (Groupama Team France), and Glenn Ashby (Emirates Team NZ). I was also lucky enough to get some time with Hiroki Goto, a Moth Sailor who originates from Fukuoka, and is the commentator for Japanese television channels this weekend.
It was very light and variable on the water today in Fukuoka, with big changes in the placings across each race due to the difficult conditions. Regardless, the Race Committee managed to get four practice races away, the first three being one lap dashes, and the final “substitute race” of two laps which will count if there is no racing tomorrow.
Practice Race 1
SoftBank Team Japan and Oracle Team USA had the jump on the start, and the defenders managed to take the early lead from the locals at the first mark on Japanese waters. There was some congestion at each mark as the boats really did not enjoy the corners in next to no breeze. Oracle Team USA held on to the win after a good run and great boat handling at the first, which was also the final bottom mark rounding.
The podium were as follows; Oracle Team USA, SoftBank Team Japan, and Land Rover BAR.
The breeze increased slightly for the second race, SoftBank Team Japan (again) and Groupama Team France Team won the start and led to the reaching mark in that order.
As an indicator of the variability, Oracle Team USA, left dead on the start line, foiled to overtake boats to the reaching mark and found themselves back in the mix immediately.
Oracle Team USA managed to round the bottom mark faster but on the outside of SoftBank Team Japan and hugged the left up the work. There were big splits, Land Rover BAR and SoftBank Team Japan headed to the right hand side.
Oracle Team USA seemed to have taken a hit as they ducked sterns, crossing the course all the way back across the right. They made all of that territory back to lead around the last mark and take the win, followed by Groupama Team France, SoftBank Team Japan, Artemis Racing, Land Rover BAR, and then Emirates Team New Zealand.
Practice Race 3
As the rain approached the breeze became more unpredictable and eased a bit, and we saw the code zeros coming out at times upwind, especially for Artemis Racing who tend to use the code before most.
Groupama Team France started well again and led to the reaching mark with SoftBank Team Japan and Land Rover BAR in hot pursuit. The first three boats continued to the left hand side (upwind) on starboard, but Oracle Team USA gybed to split on their own to the right, Artemis Racing took the difference and seemed to fly down the middle of the run on port.
First to the bottom were Groupama Team France, Land Rover BAR, Artemis Racing and SoftBank Team Japan.
The last work was again so variable and it was too hard to call who was leading by the naked eye, all boats made big gains and losses with each puff and shift, but going right for Artemis and SoftBank was particularly costly.
Land Rover BAR led to the last mark, with Emirates Team NZ, and Oracle Team USA managing to get around Groupama Team France, followed by SoftBank Team Japan and then Artemis Racing who finished in last position despite looking really good at times in the race.
Practice Race 4 (substitute race)
This was clearly a possible “to count” race from the start with the boats being more aggressive in their line-up. Oracle Team USA led to the first mark, but Land Rover BAR never gave in, continuing to make gains on every leg. Oracle Team USA is the most likely team to take the World Series from the extended lead that Land Rover BAR has going into the official racing tomorrow, so it was great to watch these teams flex their virtual muscles. Oracle Team USA had to duck Land Rover BAR on the final work and held the lead from there.
Final results of the race that may be counted if racing doesn’t happen tomorrow; Land Rover BAR, Oracle Team USA, SoftBank Team Japan, Artemis Racing, Groupama Team France, Emirates Team New Zealand.
Shifty on the water and a shift in focus
Land Rover BAR are on top of the leader board going into tomorrow, and they will be hard pressed to beat with a 14 point lead over challengers Oracle Team USA.
“It’s amazing to think that this is the ninth event in the World Series. It’s been a long old road, and to come here on top, well it’s a great position for us” said Ben Ainslie in our interview with him after the press conference.
Nine events, and we have been to seven. Wow. And what a change those nine events have made in the scheme of things.
“If we can win and take the two bonus points, that is 20% of the points that are on offer for the next stage of qualifying in Bermuda” Ainslie explained, continuing with the shift in theme for most skippers who are now looking to do well this weekend, but more so looking to Bermuda and the task at hand for the official event come May 2017.
Nathan Outteridge (in the interviews above) explained that the two boat development program is a big focus for the team at the moment, as it always has been, “but this whole world series has taught us about the racing, about our communication on board, learning all the rules, reminding you of all the special unique rules of the America’s Cup”, so a great experience for the team. And perhaps this focus on learning is what has given Artemis the edge in both Bermuda and Chicago were they took out the regatta wins. Outteridge commented that it is basically impossible for them to win unless everything goes their way, so they will do what they can to make that happen.
Probably the most surprising note for the day were the poor results from Emirates Team New Zealand. Ashby suggested to me that there has been a lot of focus on development of late in the Emirates camp, and the team are proud of where they are at, but were the last to launch their development boat a few weeks ago. “We are firmly focussed on Bermuda next year” said Ashby, “obviously we would like to come away from here with a good result, but in actual fact if you’ve got a slow race boat next year it is not going to matter how you go at the World Series”.