America's Cup: Korean Giant Killers through to ACWS Match Race Semis

Giant killers - Team Korea - 34th America’s Cup-AC World Series-Plymouth 2011-Race Day 5

Three straight wins have propelled Team Korea, the White Tiger Challenge, into the semi-finals of the Plymouth Match Racing Championships as they proved themselves the team of the day in the second America’s Cup World Series regatta.

Having finished as sixth seed in the qualifying races yesterday, Korea went into the all Asian battle against China Team where there was certainly more on the line than just pride in this one-on-one contest, a place in the next round awaiting the winner and valuable ranking points. Skipper Chris Draper, sailing on home waters was determined to win, and the team’s cause was helped hugely as China’s helmsman, Andy Hagara crossed the start line too early, incurring a penalty, a massive unforced error. From there Korea took the lead around the nine legs of the course, taking care not to make any mistakes, winning the match with a comfortable lead.

The team now waited to see who they would face in their second match, and as most here predicted, it was to be Jimmy Spithill of ORACLE Racing (USA) who dominated their match against GreenComm Racing from Spain. Having taken the mighty scalp of Russell Coutts at the last regatta, skipper of the other ORACLE Racing team, few thought that Draper and his crew could repeat that achievement against Spithill, the Australian sailing star who helmed the massive USA-17 trimaran when the team won the America’s Cup match in Valencia, Spain, eighteen months ago.

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And what a match this proved to be here with the winds now gusting over twenty knots, Spithill getting an early lead around the course with Korea following closely. The decisive moment was when Draper decided to split away from their opponents at the second mark, and swept into a better wind shift, coming out of strongly at speed, quickly overtaking the America’s Cup winning skipper and into the lead. The team sailed superbly to hold on, getting every call and every move right, to gradually extend away from the American’s, then at mark five, Spithill and his crew, now under pressure to claw back distance made an error gybing and almost capsized, losing valuable time in recovering the boat – handing the race to Korea who streaked 250 metres into the lead. Despite a charge from Spithill towards the end, Draper and his team didn’t put a foot wrong and sailed through the finish to score another historic victory over the ORACLE Racing team.

Spithill said afterwards, ‘’we knew Korea were going to be tough, they seem to be quite a problem for us in ORACLE Racing! We had some issues on the boat, they sailed past us and that was it really. I take my hat off to them and wish them all the best tomorrow’’. Team CEO Kim Dong-Young was ecstatic, ‘’I am so nervous watching the races, but I said this morning to the team, we beat Russell Coutts, and so we could beat James Spithill too!’’.

After just a five minute break, barely time to draw breath and recover from the extraordinarily demanding physical exertion required to sail these yachts, the team now advanced into their next match, already assured of a fifth position in the Match Racing Championship here, win or lose against their new opponents Energy from France.

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Energy’s skipper Loick Peyron, is a world renowned multi-hull sailor who finished fourth in the fleet race seeding yesterday, their best result of this new regatta series, and off the start, the two AC45 yachts were almost side by side, flying hulls at top speed into the first turn mark, Energy coming out marginally ahead. Was this the end of another ‘Cinderella’ story for Korea? Again Draper and his crew chose to gybe the bottom mark of the course on a different side to the French, a move that paid off as they sailed into a huge wind shift, the TV graphics showing the distance between the boats closing rapidly, and suddenly the ‘White Tiger’ pounced and Korea were leading. Yet again, the team sailed safely around the race track, holding off a late challenge from the French, protecting their lead with classic match race tactics, and crossing the line to win their third straight match of the day. That meant the team advanced into their second semi-final in two regattas, a feat that seemed virtually impossible just three hours earlier.

Draper said afterwards, ‘’we went out there with nothing to lose and wanted to sail cleanly. The guys did a fantastic job with the boat handling, and we made good tactical decisions. It was a brilliant team effort by everyone and I’m really proud of what we did. We sailed a solid race against ORACLE and of course we’re pleased we managed to beat Jimmy’’. Now Korea faces the number one seed here, Artemis Racing from Sweden. Chris concluded, ‘’we need to sail the best races we can against them, they will be a tough match for sure and we know it will be hard, but it’s great to be in the top four again’’.

Korea now has an impressive record in match racing, as over the first two regattas of the new America’s Cup World Championship series, they have sailed six matches and won five. Tomorrow’s semi-final against the well funded Swedish team, skippered by USA’s Terry Hutchinson - a hugely experienced match race expert is sure to be a tough test though. The first team to win two points out of three will advance to the final itself later in the day. Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand secured their place in that final after a titanic battle against Russell Coutts of ORACLE Racing, taking it by two wins to one late in the day, showing exactly how to match race these super fast 45 feet catamarans.

The kiwis inflicted that only match race defeat on Korea so far, but before contemplating any kind of rematch, first Korea must overcome the challenge posed by Terry Hutchinson, but the respect appears to now be mutual. In the evening press conference he commented, ‘’they did a really good job today and are physically very fit, which you can see in all their boat handling and maneuvering. They were just a little bit more ahead of the curve than the guys they raced, and in a game of inches, at 22 knots, they’re gaining a lot ground on the other teams with that. Before we even think about anything, we have a big task ahead of us with Team Korea’’.

Kim Dong-Young was looking forward to tomorrow however, ‘’It was another historic moment for Team Korea, and the sailing community in Korea today’’ he commented, ’’It was a great performance by our team, and everyone has worked so hard to help make this happen. We are in the semi-final stage again and we will score good points towards the America’s Cup World Championship title after finishing fourth in Portugal last month, and I feel we can beat Artemis if we don’t make any unforced errors. Our speed is good and the teamwork is outstanding – it would certainly be an incredible achievement to reach the final’’.

Racing is due to start in Plymouth at 14.10 local UK time, and the wind is expected to be as strong as today which could certainly favour Korea, who seem to perform at their best in the heavier conditions. Plymouth is looking forward to a spectacular weekend of top class racing as the finale approaches.

About Team Korea
Korea is the newest nation to enter the America’s Cup, representing the Sail Korea Yacht Club based in Seoul. Fondly known as the ‘White Tiger Challenge’, the White Tiger is a revered and ancient Guardian God of the west. The team recently hosted a visit of the America’s Cup trophy in Seoul for the first time in history, courtesy of Brooks Brothers Korea. The prestigious Louis Vuitton Cup was also presented to the press at the same time on a very significant day in the continued development of Team Korea. Sponsors of the team include Sail Racing high performance clothing.