Monday, August 23, 2010

Spithill, Ashby take aim at IC^4

Update: 1800 CET (1200 Newport, RI)

Racing for Day 1 of the International C Class Catamaran Championship has been postponed for the day. At decision time moments ago the race committee reported gusts up to 27 knots from the northeast on Narragansett Bay north of the Newport Bridge. The wind is forecast to subside tomorrow.

There are two parts to the event format, fleet racing and match racing. The Notice of Race calls for a minimum of three and maximum of 12 fleet races before the match racing. The top two teams in the fleet racing advance to the match racing final for the International C Class Catamaran Championship Trophy.

Original post: 1443 CET (0843 Newport, RI)

The occasion of the 25th International C-Class Catamaran Championship has attracted six international crews to Newport, R.I., to contest the event known unofficially and informally as the “Little America’s Cup.”

One of those crews is BMW ORACLE Racing team skipper Jimmy Spithill, who’ll be crewing for fellow Aussie Glenn Ashby aboard the 25-foot, wing-sailed cat Alpha, the Canadian boat that won the previous IC^4 (the event’s new abbreviated title) in Toronto in 2007.

Spithill and Ashby’s trails in multihull racing are becoming multi-versed. Spithill, 31, skippered the BMW ORACLE Racing trimaran USA to victory in the 33rd America’s Cup last February. He made the jump from displacement monohulls to a 90-foot trimaran with 223-foot tall wing mast with aplomb and a lot of hard work. That transition was enabled by Ashby.

Ashby, 32, is the reigning A Class Catamaran world champion, having won his seventh title last month. It was also his 14th world championship overall. In fact, in the past 12 months, Ashby has won the Tornado Worlds, two A Class Worlds and the 33rd America’s Cup, as coach for the team.

Ashby’s extensive background in multihulls was the perfect knowledge base for Spithill, who had limited multihull experience, training on X40s and Franck Cammas’ ORMA 60 Groupama 2, until USA was launched in August 2008. Last December Ashby conducted an intense training session during the holiday season for team members such as Spithill, John Kostecki (tactician), and Dirk de Ridder (wing trimmer).

The idea was for the guys to get as much training in as possible. It worked well. Ashby won the event and Spithill went on to place 6th in his first significant competition in the singlehanded catamaran.

Less than two months later they were hoisting champagne together in celebration of the America’s Cup triumph. In July they placed 18th out of 80 in the Gold Fleet at the F18 Worlds, and now the Aussies hope to re-establish their homeland as a wrecking crew in the Little America’s Cup.

Australia, the U.S. and U.K. have been the major players in the class. U.K. crews won the first eight championships from 1961 to 1968, but none since. Australia and U.S. teams each have seven championships.

Heading into the 25th anniversary event, the Canadians Fred Eaton and Magnus Clarke are the team to beat. The duo is the defense team after having won in 2007 aboard Alpha.

This week they’re racing the slick new cat Canaan, the second-generation advancement from Alpha. Canaan’s black carbon-fiber hulls sport a clear coat and the wing is reputed to be the lightest in the fleet.

Team members spent much of last night replacing the film on the wing. In an effort for weight reduction they used a super-thin film similar to cling film wrap. But the film is porous and easily punctured, and with rain and strong winds expected the first days of the regatta the team replaced the thin film with a vinyl layer.

Clarke, the crewman, has ties to BMW ORACLE Racing, as does Rob Paterson, a crewmember aboard Orion, the first generation cat after Alpha.

Clarke and Paterson were the “wingsitters” aboard USA from the time the wing sail was fitted in San Diego last November right through until February in Valencia. There, dressed in every piece of clothing they could muster to combat the chilly winter nights, they camped out on the tri under the fully-rigged wing to prevent it from sailing off on its own. With just a couple of degrees of incidence, the wing sail could generate lift and threaten to launch USA.

Which brings us back to Ashby and Spithill. You might say they’re entering this event under a wing and on a prayer. They’ve had scant little practice time as schedules have prohibited them from arriving before the weekend. A practice session yesterday afternoon was cut short after about 30 minutes because a line controlling the leech element of the wing failed.

Day 1 won’t be a cakewalk, either. A low pressure system has parked up across the New England region and dumped nearly one inch of rain in Newport over the past 24 hours along with east/northeasterly winds. Although the rain has abated this morning, it is expected to return later today and the winds are expected 20 to 25 knots from the northeast.

Today’s racing will be held in Narragansett Bay, north of the Newport Bridge, where the waves will be smaller but the wind gustier and shiftier.

But with Ashby’s extensive knowledge on the helm and Spithill on the wire, Australia’s hope for a return to C Class cat domination is in good hands.