Lucky Number 13
Rules are rules, but the Kiwis were robbed of the America’s Cup today by time. Not time astern of the Defender, Oracle Team USA, mind you, but elapsed time.
Some backstory. San Francisco Bay was virtually becalmed today, with the breeze hovering around 7 knots for the pre-start, which saw Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ)—currently sitting on match point—enter the starting box first. The Kiwis crossed clear ahead, but Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s skipper, better positioned his boat to hit the line’s favored left side at pace (read: borderline drifting). The Kiwis also “accelerated” quickly, but Spithill’s position allowed him to push the Kiwis way up on the first leg and round the first mark 10 seconds ahead.
The big move happened on Leg Two when ETNZ caught a key puff and rolled Oracle to weather, clearly demonstrating that theirs is the faster light-air steed. This advantage compounded to one minute and 42 seconds by the leeward gate, but—suddenly—the Kiwis encountered that truly relentless opponent: elapsed time.
Tacks, gybes and several highly polished Code-0 maneuvers later and the Kiwis were nearing the leeward gate, some 1,200 meters ahead of Oracle (who were struggling with their big sail), when the Race Committee’s 40-minute timer zeroed out. Based on their remaining distance, ETNZ was two to four minutes shy of winning the 34th America’s Cup, and exasperated groans rang out as fans and crewmembers hunkered for another tussle.
Oracle’s reaction—not surprisingly—was far more positive.
The countdown timer began again for Race 13, this time in gathering airs. The Kiwis again entered the starting box on port tack, establishing themselves on the port end of the line. Spithill aggressively went for the hook, but Dean Barker, ETNZ’s skipper, staved off this now-scripted attack, winning the start and establishing a three-second margin at the first mark.
Race 13 was won and lost at the bottom third of the second leg. Despite a meaty advantage, ETNZ misjudged a critical crossing and caught a penalty for causing Oracle (on starboard) to alter course. Oracle immediately cultivated a 150-meter lead (discharging the Kiwis’ penalty) and—approaching the bottom gate—had the luxury of picking sides. The AC72s converged and Oracle correctly took the right-hand mark, conceding the slower, offshore side to the Kiwis. Neither team’s rounding was beautiful, but Oracle emerged the winner, having stretched their lead to several hundred meters.
Spithill’s 13th race kept getting more auspicious as a big left shift perfectly set Oracle up to lay the gate’s favored side. ETNZ rounded the top mark 46 seconds astern, a done-deal Delta in AC72 parlance. Oracle ultimately earned their fifth on-the-water win by one minute and 24 seconds—a golden outcome to a day that was mere minutes from being disastrous for the Defender.
What does this win mean for the match point Kiwis? Aside from adding drama to an already nail-biting Cup, the real-world math remains virtually unchanged, as Oracle still needs to bag six straight wins while the Kiwis are only one bullet shy of completing their national duty. As for the psychological scoreboard, I’d argue that this, too, is a draw, given the Kiwis’ tantalizing dance with success during the day’s first tactical tussle.
Racing resumes tomorrow, so stay tuned to see if Oracle’s newfound grit can stay their looming execution long enough for a full-on pardon.
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