How will history look back on the 34th America’s Cup? Is it to be considered a dramatic, tragic, barely believable aberration, or will we (New Zealanders probably apart) see the Summer of Sailing in San Francisco through sepia-tinted spectacles and wonder why all Cups couldn’t be like that one?
Despite the deluge of earlier criticism heaped on the this Cup, Oracle Team USA’s staggering comeback win from 1-8 down against Emirates Team New Zealand means I suspect we’ll gaze back upon it with fond memories.
In past America’s Cups, it has become apparent within the first couple of minutes that either the Defender or Challenger had a speed edge that was likely to prove decisive in the outcome. When you introduce a new class of boat to the contest, not least something as revolutionary as a wing-rigged, hydrofoiled, flying 72-foot catamaran, someone’s going to get the technical challenge more right than the other.
But not this time. Race one was a humdinger, full of drama and unpredictability. Launching off the start line on to a 40-knot tight reach, New Zealand held a narrow lead around the first turning mark downwind. The Kiwis soon moved to a 150 metre lead and already it looked like Dean Barker’s slick team would run away with the Cup. By the bottom gate, however, Jimmy Spithill had closed the gap to four seconds. Not only that, but the Oracle cat seized the lead up the windward leg, only to give the Kiwis too much leverage and allow the Challenger to stretch away for a 36-second win. The Kiwis would go on to win the next two, setting a worrying trend for the home team.
A seven-second win in race four looked like Spithill – who was winning most of the starts – had found a way of keeping his arch-rival Barker at bay. But any optimism was short-lived. Another defeat in race five saw Oracle play its joker card to postpone the second race of the day, and find a way of getting back on level terms with the Kiwis who had an edge upwind, both in terms of speed and tactics.
The shore crew worked through the next two nights to make small but significant alterations to the boat, and in place of the 49-year-old tactician from San Francisco, John Kostecki, appeared a 36-year-old four-time Olympic champion – Ben Ainslie from Lymington.
Ainslie’s impact was not instant. The Americans lost the next race. But over the next few matches development on board the American boat – in human and technical terms – was extraordinary. The sailors were better by the race, and behind the scenes the Oracle unit of 130 people was working like crazy to improve the package.
If there was a tipping point in the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams, it was symbolised in race eight with the most heart-stopping of moments. The Americans appeared to have gained the measure of the Kiwis on the upwind leg, negating New Zealand’s upwind speed advantage of early in the series. Engaged in a fierce tacking duel, the fourth time the teams came together, Barker began an attempt at a lee-bow tack but the boat lost its hydraulic pressure at a critical moment and the wing wouldn’t flip through on to the new tack. The wing turned into a wall, pushing the boat up on its ear and on the verge of a capsize. ‘Hydro, hydro, hydro!’ came the call from Aussie wing trimmer Glenn Ashby. None of the crew abandoned his post, and the grinders kept grinding away to regain hydraulic pressure in the nick of time, popping the wing through, resulting in the starboard hull crashing back down again.
Sitting tantalising close to victory on match point, twice the Kiwis were leading when the wind exceeded the predetermined limits and racing was abandoned. On another occasion they were leading by a huge margin in light winds, and came within a mile of the finish line before the 40-minute time limit dashed their hopes. ‘Better to be lucky than good,’ admitted Ainslie with a smile afterwards.
And still the Americans kept on coming, faster by the race, faster than the Kiwis. Barker’s body language was increasingly careworn. In seven – seven! – straight victories Oracle brought the series to 8-8. With the greatest escape ever seen in Cup history on the cards, Oracle started indifferently by burying its bows in a wave, but recovered magnificently to storm past the Kiwis approaching the Golden Gate Bridge on the windward third leg.
It is said Oracle’s owner Larry Ellison seriously does not like to lose. In jubilant scenes aboard the winning AC72, he showed how it feels to win.
This is an abbreviated version of a feature that appears in the November 2013 issue of Boat International.