Imagine stepping onto the world stage and delivering a grand-slam performance, only to go home knowing that doom was prolonged, not dodged. Such is the fate of Jimmy Spithill, skipper of Oracle Team USA, the Defender of the 34th America’s Cup. Spithill woke up today knowing that his opponents, Dean Barker and the crew of Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), are on match point in this best-of-nine series, while his own scoreboard advertised the loneliest number.
The pressure is immense, and—after Oracle’s strong showing today—it shows no signs of abating.
While the left-hand side of the line was less favored today, it was obvious that this was still the desired real estate for both skippers as they entered the starting box. Oracle got the benefit of entering 10 seconds ahead of ETNZ on port tack, but the Kiwis aggressively came at them in an attempt to make the Defender commit to a line position. Things looked perfect for the Kiwis until Spithill executed a flawless hook on his second attempt, forcing ETNZ to head way, way up. The canon roared, and Barker had no choice but to play catch-up.
Spithill leaned on his metaphorical accelerator, earning a five-second lead around the first mark. Oracle sprang onto her foils, and a carefully cultivated lead developed, with both boats exhibiting nearly even speeds as they thundered toward the bottom gate.
The ebb tide was stronger on the course’s shore side, making Spithill’s decision to round the left-hand side of the leeward gate and head offshore a bit surprising; ETNZ wisely chose the faster water. Punching upwind, Barker closed the gap, but Oracle did a solid job of ensuring that the Kiwis were astern at each crossing.
So what’s making Oracle so much quicker upwind? Several things. Oracle strategist Tom Slingsby could be heard calling for faster (read: upwind foiling at lower angles) and slower (read: semi-displacement mode at higher angles) modes based on real-time wind conditions. Moreover, Ben Ainslie, Oracle’s tactician, spent the race sprinting around the platform, studying ways of luring ETNZ into making mistakes; just last week Oracle’s tactician’s role called for far more grinding time. These changes, coupled with evolving foil shapes (reportedly modified daily) and different wing tunings, are clearly working as Oracle tagged a mind-blowing 31-plus knots on this upwind leg.
While the lead never changed, it defined the term “elastic” as the boats tacked, crossed and scrapped to find their respective lay lines coming into the windward gate. Oracle rounded 10 decisive seconds ahead of ETNZ, extending their lead as both boats (eventually) found their foils. Oracle—long considered the quicker off-the-breeze cat—doubled and then tripled their lead simply by sailing fast and nailing the first key shift.
Passing opportunities utterly vanished as Oracle rounded the last mark 29 seconds ahead of ETNZ, before extending this lead by another two seconds at the finishing line. “That’s how we’re going to handle it, one after another,” announced a confident Spithill in a between-races interview.
Stronger puffs precluded a second race, so now Spithill must embrace another day of match-point pressure. Likewise, it’s questionable how soundly Barker is sleeping given that most of his countrymen are dreaming of a victory celebration, but the scoreboard still speaks with a thick Kiwi accent: “ETNZ 8, Oracle 2, mate.”
Racing resumes tomorrow and continues through the weekend, so stay tuned for more, as it unfurls.
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