Bare-Knuckle Sailboat Racing

Razor-thin margins in the closest day of racing of the 34th America’s Cup.

America's Cup 34

The racing was close today between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand at the 34th America's Cup.ACEA / Gilles Martin-Raget

Oracle Team USA arrived on the water today looking like a new squad. Jimmy Spithill, the team's famously aggressive skipper, owned Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) at the start of Race Nine, adroitly dodging a high-commitment hook move by ETNZ's skipper, Dean Barker. The timer zeroed out and began flicking out positive numbers as both boats lagged behind the starting line. Then, after sufficiently stuffing the Kiwis, Oracle put their bows down and made for the first mark, leaving ETNZ to find their pace.

And that was the race—over before either team escaped the starting box. Sure, the boats still had to lap the course, but this was semantics: Oracle took the bullet by 47 seconds.

Race Ten proved to be an anxiety-ridden affair for fans and sailors alike. Spithill again executed a masterful start, pushing Barker deep into the starting box, but ETNZ battled to earn and maintain a critical overlap near the first mark. Oracle granted the Kiwis room, and instantly ETNZ rocketed ahead.

Salt water vaporized under the foils as the boats thundered down the run in a breeze that almost surpassed the U.S. Coast Guard-enforced safety limit. ETNZ cleared the first gate 11 seconds ahead of Oracle, who wisely split marks. Unfortunately for American interests, Oracle’s rounding wasn’t beautiful, costing the team precious racecourse real estate.

Suddenly, things were spicy.

Oracle engaged their newfound upwind gear, quickly erasing some of ETNZ’s precious lead. Sixty-knot closing speeds and high-stakes crosses became routine, and the pole position changed hands several times. Approaching the windward gate, Oracle looked to have the win in their crosshairs, but then Barker managed to sail higher and slower (yes, you read that correctly), allowing him to dip Spithill and split Oracle around the gate.

Oracle’s mistake was subtle, but crushing. Instead of gybing to cover at the first downwind crossing, Oracle slowed their speed and held their board, allowing ETNZ to capture the pole position and—ultimately—round the last gate 11 seconds ahead. Sheets hardened, speedos spiked and Kiwi fans thundered their national joy as ETNZ won by 17 seconds.

Post-racing analysis can be a consumptive habit, but a few critical points emerge. Oracle has clearly found the keys to moding their boat for different conditions—a critical skill set that ETNZ has long commanded—earning the team some much-needed psychological momentum. For their part, ETNZ exhibited steely nerves and showcased their recovery moves.

“If you didn’t enjoy today’s racing, you need to find a different sport,” joked Barker at the post-racing press conference, vocalizing the most important sentiment of this Cup: The races are tactical, cerebral and evenly matched.

While today’s racing highlighted how closely matched both camps are, the hard-boiled reality is that nothing changed. True, Oracle added a positive integer to their leaderboard score, but ETNZ edged one critical race closer to winning.

For fans, however, the weekend delivered heart-pounding racing, a near capsize, a modest comeback by the Defender and a set of impressive moves by the Challenger signaling that they, too, can inflict tactical cuts. The only difference for ETNZ, however, is that a six-race lead translates to thick calluses compared to the Defender’s relatively tender epidermal armor.

Monday is a lay day, with racing set to continue on Tuesday. Two bullets now separate ETNZ from victory, while the Defender needs to pull off eight more magnificent races—a tall order at best, but one that Oracle proved is not impossible.

Stay tuned to this space for more racecourse action, as it unfurls.