DUBAI // Idyllic sailing conditions of eight to 12 knots greeted the opening day of the 2010 RC44 Championship Tour at Dubai International Marine Club yesterday, as the series' nine identical RC44 vessels went head-to-head in the ultra-competitive match race format.
The hearty, shamal-aided offshore winds were a far cry from the flimsy blusters which blighted the RC44s when they last docked in the Emirates, for November's 2009 season finale. After five and half hours of intense nautical battles, Team Sea Dubai returned to the DIMC jetty on top having triumphed in all five of its first-day flights, or one on one races. Having seen his crew lay down an early claim for the match race trophy by ending the day undefeated, the skipper Markus Wieser was buoyant.
"In the match races you have to start very strongly and then play the shifts well. If you start ahead, normally you stay ahead," smiled Wieser, who discounted the role home advantage had played. "All the guys have sailed here in the past and the wind was not normal out there. It usually comes from the right-side at about 320 degrees, but it was around 260 degrees today [Monday]." Despite a perfect first day's sailing, Sea Dubai was not the only boat to finish the session unbeaten. Team Artemis, skippered by one of the world's premier helmsmen, Terry Hutchinson - the 2008 Med & World TP52 champion - won all four of its flights.
Wieser and Hutchinson will face-off today in an intriguing flight which could well decide the final match race positions. Hutchinson's remarkable RC44 debut - he has replaced Dean Barker on the Swedish-owned Artemis boat - left the American beaming. "That was our first day of racing and we're a little tired, but relieved to have got through the day," he said. "You can lose the championship in these early-season battles, but you can't win it, so I'm happy to have not made any mistakes. It's some pretty big shoes we're stepping in to. It's early days, but for day one it has been better than I anticipated."
A measure of the fierce RC44 competition - the series is viewed as one of the key training grounds for America's Cup racing - was evident in yesterday's racing statistics: no boat finished the session without winning a flight. Last year's champion, No Way Back, lost three flights - one to Sea Dubai - but won its final two, while the BMW Oracle Racing boat, without the owner, Larry Ellison, and the legendary helmsman, Russell Coutts, because of their America's Cup commitments, won and lost a brace.
"There is no looking back at last season, it is a new year and everyone starts with a clean slate," said Pieter Heerema, the No Way Back owner. "We will have to fight really hard this year because there are a lot of strong teams out there." The regatta's match race action resumes at 11am today. Following Wednesday's rest-day, three consecutive days of fleet races - where the boat owners must steer the RC44s - are scheduled from Thursday.