26 Sep 2013

Cup victory: How the regatta was won

9:35 am on 26 September 2013

Oracle Team USA has completed what for so long had seemed an impossible comeback from 8-1 down in a thrilling final race decider. Sail Racing Magazine's Justin Chisholm looks back at the regatta.

While the American team's last race victory was by a comprehensive 44 seconds, their defence of sailing's oldest and most prestigious competition did not come easy and the challengers from Emirates Team New Zealand came within a hair's breadth of taking it away from them.

The 2013 edition of the Cup turned out to be the most unpredictable in its 162 year history. Traditionally, the Cup has been a design battle as much as it is a sailing competition with the old adage 'the fastest boat always wins' always holding true.

This time however, working out which of the two protagonists had built the fastest AC72 was a lot more tricky.

Early in the first to nine points series it was challengers Team New Zealand who had the upper hand in terms of performance. They put it to good use too, to build up an 8-1 cushion over Cup holders Oracle.

In the monohull Cups of old, that would have been that and there would have been no conceivable way that Oracle could have tweaked their boat enough to get themselves back in the match. But, in this brave new world of America's Cup competition, the boats didn't plod and smash their way through the waves like before. Rather, they flew above them like Stealth fighters, balanced precariously on thin carbon foils.

Ultimately it was the relative abilities of the Kiwi and American syndicates - who had each come at this from very different design perspectives- to get their boats airborne that decided the Cup.

Going into the final match series the New Zealand crew were perceived as the masters of foiling their boat downwind. Long before they arrived in San Francisco they had been the first team to successfully get their boat up in the air in the waters off their home base in Auckland.

Soon after, Oracle managed to get their first boat flying too, but it was with much less aplomb than the Kiwis. Then at the end of 2012 they suffered a major setback to their defence plans when they destroyed their boat in a spectacular nosedive capsize on San Francisco Bay.

Fortunately for them, their billionaire backer, American software mogul Larry Ellison, was willing to divert the necessary funds to enable them to regroup and rebuild. When their second boat was unveiled in April this year, it looked seductively slender and seemed more aerodynamically slippy compared to the rock solid looks of the New Zealander's 'Big Red Tractor'.

As anticipation ramped up ahead of the 34th America's Cup Final Series the question on everyones' lips, including in fact the teams themselves, was which design squad had got it right and built a boat fast enough to win the America's Cup?

To further ratchet up the tension, the international jury deducted two points from Oracle and excluded their wing trimmer from the competition for rule breaking in the America's Cup World Series warm up regattas.

Early advantage

Even when the first race got under way there was still no clear answer. In what turned out to be a compelling close fought battle, Team New Zealand led for the first two legs before Oracle overhauled them on the upwind leg. The Kiwis struck back, however, and went on to win that opening race along with the one that followed later that day.

So it was advantage to Team New Zealand after day one, but many believed that was down to crew work and tactical smart rather than any obvious speed advantage.

The second day of engagement saw New Zealand win the first race in style, having shrugged off a penalty from Oracle at the first turning mark to cruise into an unassailable lead.

The second race of the day saw a pitbull match racing performance by Oracle helmsman James Spithill, who won the start then used every trick in his play book to contain his opposite number Dean Barker to take his first win of the series. This victory boosted Oracle's morale but failed to put any points on the board because of the the two-point jury penalty.

3-0 ahead after four races, the Kiwi crew looked the more composed of the two and in particular the relationship between Barker and his tactician Ray Davies appeared to be firing on all cylinders. Contrastingly though, Spithill did not seem as comfortable with his tactician John Kostecki.

That situation came to a head in the fifth race of the series when Kostecki threw away a solid lead at the first leeward gate by calling for a hard-to-pull-off foiling tack, which effectively stopped them dead in the water and let the Kiwis back in front.

Soundly beaten it that race, a frustrated Spithill played his 'joker' card to have the second race of the day called off. A long night of discussions back at the Oracle base followed and the next day Kostecki was out, replaced by British Olympic hero Sir Ben Ainslie.

But, while the Oracle afterguard did look more cohesive with Ainslie in the tactician role they still didn't win either of their next two races. Emirates Team New Zealand were now just three points from lifting the Cup while Oracle needed to win a staggering ten to defend it. Nevertheless, a defiant Spithill said there would be no surrender from Oracle and called in his design and boat building teams to make 'aggressive' modifications to their boat.

New-look Oracle

Oracle faced off against Team New Zealand again two days later, when it was immediately clear the modifications had improved their performance. In what turned out to be one of the most exciting matches of the series, the American boat harried the New Zealanders into an uncharacteristic boat handling error which saw them come within less than one degree of capsizing out of a tack. Spithill took full advantage of the Kiwi drama to overtake and close out Oracle's second win of the series.

The following day saw more heart pounding action, with Oracle winning the first encounter and Team New Zealand taking the second. Oracle had now expunged their two penalty points and put a score on the board, but with a 7-1 advantage surely the Kiwis could not be caught?

After a day of racing lost to strong winds above the prescribed wind limit, Emirates team New Zealand went to match point in the series after a windy wire to wire win in the eleventh race. Building breezes in the afternoon denied them the chance of a repeat victory which would have secured them the Cup.

So, 8-1 ahead and only requiring one race win to finish the job off, the challengers from New Zealand looked poised for an epic victory. So much so that Kiwi fans began to flood into San Francisco to witness what they believed would be history in the making.

Oracle had other ideas however. Their win in the twelfth race delayed New Zealand celebrations and when Team New Zealand failed to finish within the time limit in the thirteenth heat, Oracle won the re-sail to make it 8-3.

At that point, there was still no need for Barker and his team to panic, but when an increasingly confident Oracle went on a five-race winning spree to tie up the series at 8-8, the Kiwis found themselves in full crisis mode.

Oracle's secret weapon it seemed was an extra gear in the foiling department upwind - a weapon they used to devastating effect in the penultimate race of the Cup, coming from behind at the leeward gate to power over the top of the apparently defenceless Team New Zealand and into an unassailable lead.

Down to the wire

Oracle had done the unimaginable and tied up the series for a single do-or-die race for the America's Cup. Just as importantly, perhaps, the momentum was firmly with Spithill's crew who now firmly believed they could defend their America's Cup with one more win.

Or, could Barker, with his whole nation's expectations on his shoulders, rally his crew for a final push to bring the Cup back to Auckland?

The deciding race did not disappoint. Team New Zealand grabbed the early advantage off the start to hold the controlling inside berth at the first turning mark and lead for the entire downwind leg. Oracle were hot on their heels, however, and when the teams split at the leeward gate there was just three seconds between them.

As soon as the boats turned upwind Oracle's upwind foiling technique came to the fore and the American boat quickly began to make gains. Less than halfway up the leg they were ahead and extending their lead.

By the time Oracle reached the windward marks and turned downwind, the battle was over. They rounded 26 seconds ahead and tore off downwind to build up a delta by the finish of 44 seconds.

Against all the odds halfway through the series, Oracle had completed one of the biggest and most remarkable comebacks in sporting history and retained the America's Cup for the United States.

For Team New Zealand there is massive disappointment but certainly not shame. From a sailing point of view they hardly put a foot wrong, but in the end, as ever, the fastest boat once again won the America's Cup.