Sailing: Pressure rises as first taste of success sets mark for challenges ahead

The starting helmsman on GBR Challenge, Britain's America's Cup yacht, discovers there is no time to celebrate initial success as stakes rise at Louis Vuitton Cup

We have reached the first big milestone in the Louis Vuitton Cup and, while one team has reached a dead end, for GBR Challenge the signpost points forward.

It is easy to lose the significance of making it into the quarter-finals. When we arrived here, that was an unknown, it was something that we felt would probably happen, but in this game you never know until you know. Now we know, but there were never any guarantees that we would not finish last. But there has been no room for complacency, little even for celebration.

The ultimate goal was to be in the semi-finals. After the first round robin we thought it unlikely we would be last, so we set ourselves the punchy goal of perhaps being in the top four division for the quarter-finals, or at least fifth.

The top four means you are guaranteed two cracks at a semi-final slot, the importance of being fifth is that, as top boat of the second group, you can chose your opponent, but you have to win twice to make the semis. This has been a hard week and we have finished sixth.

The first thing we had to do was to ensure that we beat both Mascalzone Latino – and we all know just how they must be feeling now that they have been eliminated, it was everyone's biggest fear – and Le Defi Areva of France.

They were seen as the two bankers for points and we duly banked them. It was clean against Mascalzone, but we had to fight hard to come back from behind to beat the French.

One of the targets to push us up the table was Prada. We knew they had made changes from some wobbly performances in the first round, but did not know just what the effect would be. As it turned out, it produced not just one of the most exciting races of the round, but also of the whole regatta so far.

We were just ahead going into the first spinnaker run, they were just behind, right on our transom. There followed 20 minutes of the sort of ding-dong battle that keeps television commentators on high octane output, but it was slightly different on the back of the boat.

In situations like that we need to be able to control our own destiny, to be able to put the boat where we want. But, it is the opposite of motor racing, where the leading car can block the one behind. In this case, the boat behind can often control where we go and any risky move could easily lead to a penalty being called against us.

At the same time they were trying to put us under even greater pressure by constantly asking the umpires to award a penalty against us. During that time, the person driving ideally needs to watch the opposition, but that isn't physically possible as he is trying for maximum speed and direction as well as communicating with the sail trimmers.

As a consequence, there is quite a lot of dialogue between the people looking back and the people making the boat go forward. In some ways you cannot stop the anxiety level rising, because you are going to make a decision that will win or lose you the race. At the same time you cannot just throw all the cards in the air, you have to maintain composure, control the risk, and know that the whole crew will not become over-excited. That could lead to unrealistic risk and a loss.

As it turned out, it is possible we didn't take enough risk as Prada was able to squeeze by, round the bottom mark ahead, and defend their lead to the finish. However, we could have led round the bottom mark with a penalty and been unable to complete it before the finish. The end result would have been the same, a point to Prada. But overall we felt we sailed the race very well and the experience was invaluable. The team grows and grows.

It will have to. Every time I write this column I say that the pressure is growing, and it is again. This week we are supposed to have a couple of days off, but we also have to prepare not just one but two boats for the quarter-final.

We have yet to complete the comparative testing of GBR 70 with our new GBR 78 plus the comparative testing of GBR 70 after any changes we decide to make. We have to make a decision on which boat we will sail, though at least we will know long before that who our opponent is.

We also know that there will be no second chances. We have to win four races in the best of seven. If we do not, then most of us will be on our way home. The game has changed again. This time the stakes are even higher.

* Andy Beadsworth was talking to Stuart Alexander

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