The best was definitely left to last in the Omega Auckland Match Racing Regatta, which saw Dean Barker of Emirates Team New Zealand overcome a scratchy beginning to the regatta to beat British Team Origin skipper Ben Ainslie in an enthralling final.
Ainslie was the big performer in the round robins, losing just two matches, while Barker struggled and at one stage looked unlikely to make the final four. However, their fortunes reversed when the second round robin could not be completed, bringing into play a countback system, which saw Barker advance.
« We scraped into the semi-final on a countback, much to our surprise, » admitted Barker. « We had the boat packed up and we were not really expecting to be still racing. For once the tie-breaker worked in our favour. »
Once into the sharp end of the action, Barker and his Emirates Team New Zealand crew shook off their earlier lack of form and came out with all guns blazing, first defeating Adam Minoprio and his young BlackMatch team 2-0 in the semi-final and then defeating Ainslie by the same score.
Ainslie said he was pleased with the way he and his crew had sailed, but were disappointed with the final, « But that is the game, » he said. « Dean Barker sailed really well in the last couple of hours. »
Ainslie sailed a near-flawless regatta through the round robins and then beat young Australian match racer Torvar Mirsky by 2-0 in their semi final. This set up a perfect pair of contests. Two America’s Cup skippers, Barker and Ainslie against each other in the duel for the top prize.
And, facing off for 3rd and 4th, Minoprio and Mirsky, arch rivals on the world match racing circuit, where they are ranked #1 and #2 respectively.
With a brisk north easterly sea-breeze of 15 – 18 knots, Minoprio won the first match against Mirsky, having led from start to finish. The second was a much more complicated affair, but in the end Minoprio came from behind to clinch the match and the Petit Final by 12 secs.
As Minoprio and Mirsky prepare to resume their arch rivalry on the world match race circuit, Minoprio said his Omega Auckland Match Race result represented a good build up for the rest of the year. « Competing in this regatta has been a great experience and learning for the tour in the year to come, » he said.
« The quality of this fleet was phenomenal. It has been pretty good to have this sort of racing here at home. »
For quality match racing, the spectators could hardly have done better than the display by Barker and Ainslie in their final battle. Big tides played a significant role in the racing all week and the final was no different, with a powerful ebb tide favouring the yacht that reached the left side of the upwind leg first.
After spirited pre-start battles in the first two matches, Barker managed to claim the left both times and rode the tide into the lead for back to back wins of 40 secs and 35 secs.
With Barker on match point, the wind deserted the course and the two teams were left in suspense as the Race Committee waited for a racing breeze to re-establish itself. After a 90-minute wait, however, the breeze remained absent and the Race Committee declared the regatta at an end and Barker the champion.
This is not the first time Barker has struggled for form in the early part of a major match race regatta, only to come through at the end and take the title. « We don’t like doing it that way. It is not good for the nerves, » he said. « I couldn’t get it right in the beginning of the second round, but we did enough to scrape through.
« Ben Ainslie and his Team Origin crew set the benchmark in the regatta. They sailed consistently well all four days. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. We were lucky it came good for us at the end. »
Final Finish Order
Dean Barker (NZL)
Ben Ainslie (GBR)
Adam Minoprio (NZL)
Torvar Mirsky (AUS)
Karol Jablonski (POL)
Bertrand Pace (FRA)
Magnus Holmberg (SWE)
Francesco Bruni (ITA)
Sebastien Col (FRA)
Chris Dickson (NZL)
Match One: Barker beat Ainslie by 40 secs
Match Two: Barker beat Ainslie by 35 secs
Match One: Minoprio beat Mirsky by 14 secs
Match Two: Minoprio beat Mirsky by 12 secs
Flight One: Barker beat Minoprio by 12 secs; Ainslie beat Mirsky by 5 secs
Flight Two: Barker beat Minoprio by 24 secs; Ainslie beat Mirsky by 18 secs
Flight Seven of Round Robin Two
Minoprio beat Col by 1 sec; Mirsky beat Jablonski by 40 secs; Dickson beat Barker DNF*; Holmberg beat Pace DNF*; Ainslie beat Bruni DNF*.
DNF = The losing yachts were unable to complete the course within the 5 minute time limit after the leaders had crossed the finish line.