x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Diary: A day of surprises at the Louis Vuitton Trophy

Day five of the Louis Vuitton Trophy in Auckland, and I'm the lead yacht, in a perfect position to catch the days action.

"Stop, stop! Left a bit. Back up can you? No, right, Yeah, good mate..." Accompanied by lots of hand gestures those could be the instructions shouted from the back of the race boats to the crews - but no, it was the photographers' calls to our boat driver, as they sought the best angles for their shots. Today I'm on the lead photo boat with Paul (who spends 10 months a year travelling the world as Louis Vuitton's official yachting photographer, among other things) and Italian Luca - and the view of the racing, not to mention the beautiful setting of Waitemata Harbour, are even better than yesterday. We're low on the water in a high-speed RIB and we're allowed to get closer to the racing yachts than anyone except the crew transfer boats. Jack, our driver - whose day job is on a 45-metre motor yacht that the RIB also belongs to - does an amazing job, judging the angles and positioning perfectly. Heading out to the race course past the towers of downtown Auckland towards the low-slung cone of Rangitoto Island, the water glitters in the morning sun (Waitemata is Maori for "sparkling waters", incidentally). Behind us, though, framed by the Harbour Bridge, dark clouds are rolling in from the west. By the time the gun goes for the first race we have been drenched by two short squalls - but now the wind has settled to 12 knots and the sun is breaking through again. As the day goes on both sun and wind become stronger; it's a great day for sailing and the play of light and shade by the few high clouds creates some spectacular light for photography. Just as the weather ran the gamut from the beautiful to the beastly, so did the racing. There were smart tactical calls and great crew work by all the teams at different times of the day. Take, for instance, Dean Barker's surgical precision in carving out ETNZ's position in the start against Azzurra. Or the way Sébastien Col and John Cutler on All4One got the better of the wind shift to force Aleph into a defensive position from which it couldn't win. And, at the helm of Synergy, Karol Jablonski's tenacious and wily pre-start moves against, Ben Ainslie's TeamOrigin - also renowned for his aggressive starts. (Due, no doubt, to his Olympic-winning ways in Finns.) But the day was full of surprises. There were do-no-wrong Emirates Team New Zealand falling into the same trap at the same point in the race as three teams had done before them: breaking a spinnaker pole at the top mark. From our photo boat, only 100 metres away, it was impressive: as the kite went up it seemed to stall, then the tip of the pole dipped. "Oh, man, no...!" we yelled in unison, watching Grant Dalton running forward to investigate the problem. Suddenly, bang! The sound was like gunshot, as Dalton ducked for cover. We had a perfect sight-line for the moment in the furious pre-start duel between Artemis and Mascalzone Latino Audi when the Swedish boat failed to gybe in time and was hit by a penalty. We feared for a repeat of the ETNZ débacle as we watched Mascalzone lose control of their spinnaker in the same spot, after a clip popped open. (It took a huge effort by three crewmen to bring it back under control - so it's no wonder the skipper, Gavin Brady, admitted after the race that he was "worried about losing one of the guys going overboard".) We were right in amongst it as Synergy snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after a messy spinnaker drop allowed TeamOrigin to romp ahead. And we were only a few metres away when Azzurra lost its dignity as well as its race against ETNZ, drowning its spinnaker along with its sorrows when it made a complete hash of the drop and landed it in the water where it lay for 10 minutes before they were able to haul it, fisherman-style, back on to the boat. And, in the course of the day, other photographers came and went, leaping from chase boats to our boat and back again. As soon as ETNZ had clambered from their transfer boat to the race boat Chris Cameron, their team photographer joined us to get the best shots of the race - and of the Kiwis' precious, celebrity cargo, Dan Carter, the star of the All Blacks rugby team, who was sailing as 18th man (the first time he had been on a yacht, apparently - what a way to start.). As he jumped off, to go back to base to file his pictures, he was replaced by a member of Team Origin. Likewise, as soon as the race ended he was back on his team's chase boat to go and file his photos. It was great to be right in the action, rather than sitting among the crowd of spectator boats around the fringes. No doubt that will have its attractions, too - as I will discover tomorrow as a guest on Louis Vuitton's VIP boat. slane@thenational.ae