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    Shosholoza primed for final act

    "Are you only three years old? Well, you have been punching well above your weight and your age. Well done and heartiest congratulations on this momentous anniversary in the year when we expect even greater things from you."

    With those words, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, patron of South Africa's America's Cup challenger, Team Shosholoza, summed up the team's achievements since March 2004.

    In that time the South African entrant has evolved from an inexperienced crew with an outdated yacht into an outfit that has the ability, on its day, to beat any of the crews racing in the most prestigious sailing event in the world.

    America's Cup enters crucial phase

    From next Tuesday, 3 April, this ability will be put to the test as the final and decisive racing season for the 2007 America's Cup begins in Valencia, Spain - before an expected television audience of about 600-million viewers from around the world.

    The season opens with the 13th and final Louis Vuitton Act, a crucial four-day fleet racing regatta and the only event this year when all 11 challenging teams - from 10 countries - will be on the starting line together with the America's Cup defender, Swiss team Alinghi.

    This will be followed by the Louis Vuitton Cup, a round-robin elimination regatta to determine which single team will square up against Alinghi in the ultimate match of the America's Cup, starting on 23 June.

    With Louis Vuitton ranking points counting towards the bonus points that teams take into the Louis Vuitton Cup, the 32nd America's Cup effectively started with the first Louis Vuitton Act in 2005.

    Since then the challengers have done battle in the waters off France, Sweden, Italy and Spain - with the importance of the races growing as the racing progressed. In 2006, Louis Vuitton ranking points counted double towards each team's bonus points. Now, in the final act, they count triple.

    Lying just in front of the South African yacht, which is currently ninth in the standings, are France's Areva and Italy's +39 challengers, only five points to the good. With the increased value of the points, they are well within Shosholoza's reach.

    Improvements to the yacht

    There's another incentive for Shosholoza to shine in the final stages of its first America's Cup campaign. A recent sponsorship from MSC Crociere, Italy's largest cruise ship company, has enabled the team to make significant improvements to the yacht, including a new bow, stern, mast, bulb and sails.

    At present, the MSC Crociere sponsorship runs for 2007 only. However, if Shosholoza does well this year, it will be extended to a second America's Cup campaign, through to 2011.

    Shosholoza's team tactican, Italian Tommaso Chieffi, feels the recent changes have helped both the boat's straight-line speed and her maneuverability.

    One of the most important changes, however, focuses on the team's starts. Previously there were some problems with the yacht crossing the starting line too soon, costing the team some points. Now, equipped with a computerized launch system, Chieffi believes that Shosholoza's weakness has been turned into a strength.

    The system calculates the time to the start line, giving the precise time and distance. Getting it right is often the difference between a win or a loss.

    The 44-year-old Chieffi, who joined the crew in 2005, says the other teams are aware that Shosholoza has progressed since 2006, and that is particularly exciting since last year also represented a big leap forward for the team.

    Paolo Cian, who also joined Shosholoza in 2005, will be at the helm of the SA challenger in 2007. He's in good form, as his third place in the latest International Sailing Federation match racing rankings shows.

    South African Olympic sailor Ian Ainslie is the team's strategist, while fellow South African Mark Sadler is the skipper, with Marc Lagesse, another home-grown talent, looking after the navigation.

    Changing the face of sailing

    Since Shosholoza's America's Cup journey began over two years ago, the team has produced many important breakthroughs.

    Having a team in the America's Cup was a first not only for South Africa but for Africa, a continent that the world of sailing had previously largely ignored.

    Beyond that, it was also a breakthrough for the sport of sailing, long regarded as an elitist white man's sport. The upstarts from Africa were taking on the best the world had to offer - and holding their own.

    The team's managing director, Salvatore Sarno, says the South African challenge is "not only about sailing, but rather a perfect opportunity for showcasing South Africa's technology, incredible human initiative, skills and expertise in a way that few other international campaigns can.

    "The America's Cup is ranked with the Olympic Games, the Soccer World Cup and Formula One motor racing," says Sarno. "It is a contest that depends on leading edge technology, human resources and skills.

    "You can't find a better international platform for showcasing all that is positive about our country and our new democracy."

    When he first introduced Team Shosholoza to the America's Cup world, Sarno said: "We are not here to bring the America's Cup to Africa. We are here to bring a part of Africa to Europe and the America's Cup."

    Judging by the popularity of the team, they have managed to do just that.

    Winning - off the water, on the water

    The spirit of the crew, its steely determination and exuberance, has drawn the attention of the media and won the hearts of yachting fans around the world.

    Chieffi believes Shosholoza is the sentimental favourite of the fans because the team has introduced a fresh theme to the America's Cup, and has been much more accessible than some of the bigger teams.

    As ambassadors for South Africa and the continent, the team has already put in a winning performance. But there'll be no place for sentiment on the waters off Valencia come 3 April.

    "This is the start of our final run to the Cup," Sarno said on the team's website this week. "It is everything we have been working towards since we launched our campaign in Cape Town in 2004.

    "Our goal remains a place in the semi-finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup. If we can do that, who knows what else we can achieve."


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