Changing Tides?

Oracle Team USA makes a spirited comeback in Race Eight of the America’s Cup.

America's Cup near capsize by ETNZ

Emirates Team New Zealand narrowly avoids capsizing at the 34th America's Cup.Courtesy ACEA/Abner Kingman

Hours ago, the 34th America's Cup seemed done: The Cup was going to Auckland. Now, however, the plot has deepened.

Following Thursday's shellacking, Oracle Team USA—Defenders of "AC34"— announced boat surgery in a get-fast-now effort to stay competitive. Few dockside pundits wagered on this announcement, given Oracle's poor track record. But today the team emerged with a truncated bowsprit (among other less-obvious changes) that they hoped would add punch to their lackluster upwind performance.

Race Eight: Timers zeroed out, the gun fired and Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) exploded across the port side of the starting line in the pole position, beating Oracle around the first mark by three seconds and quickly establishing a thin-but-comfortable advantage.

We’ve seen this before. What changed, however, was that Oracle began whittling down ETNZ’s lead, demonstrating noticeably cleaner boat handling. Then, approaching the leeward gate, Ben Ainslie, Oracle’s tactician, masterfully worked a split by calling for an extra gybe, rounding the opposite mark from ETNZ. Ainslie also managed to get his team out of phase with the Kiwis, making it much harder for them to cover.

No worries, mate—ETNZ is always faster upwind, right?

Maybe not.

Oracle’s emergency surgery clearly worked. Instead of watching ETNZ pull another upwind horizon job, Oracle adopted a strategy akin to inflicting numerous paper cuts. Each tack and crossing scratched at ETNZ’s lead, but still the Kiwis commanded the advantage.

Then, it happened.

The boats converged on different boards, ETNZ threw in a tack and immediately her windward hull lifted, lifted, LIFTED! The dreams of a tiny island nation hung suspended as ETNZ's AC72 approached vanishing stability, their trimmers screaming for "hydro, HYDRO!"

The grinders madly spun their bicycle handles. Hydraulic fluid rushed to the ram that cambers the wing, allowing it to tack (the wing can’t self-tack), and the windward hull slammed back into San Francisco Bay, expelling the brine.

Several million Kiwi fans simultaneously exhaled: NZL 5 survived.

Oracle kept sailing, rounding the windward gate and leaping onto her foils. ETNZ gave chase, but Oracle’s lead proved unassailable, with the American-flagged boat ultimately crossing the finish line 52 seconds ahead.

Impressively, Dean Barker, ETNZ’s skipper, appeared Kiwi-cool in the between-races interview, his voice steady and his mind engaged on the next race, not on their near tragedy.

Race Nine: ETNZ again won the start, and again the Kiwis rounded the first mark in clean air. Déjà vu was nearly realized as both teams screamed toward the leeward gate. Again, Oracle’s afterguard masterfully worked another split at the gate. The boats came onto the breeze with ETNZ still commanding pole position, but with Oracle again employing a strategy of inflicting tactical paper-cuts.

Then, it happened.

The breeze had gathered, barely surpassing the U.S. Coast Guard-enforced wind limit of 22.6 knots. The Race Committee had no choice but to abort an active race, a first for AC34.

Collective moans echoed around the America’s Cup Race Village, and both boats kept sailing for several minutes—clearly surprised by the news—before bearing off for home.

“Limits are limits, and we absolutely respect them,” Barker said at the post-racing press conference, where he joked that the team came within a degree of capsizing.

The score remains unchanged, ETNZ 6, Oracle 0, and the post-racing analysis seems even: If Oracle was expecting rattled sailors after Race Eight, they were disappointed; if ETNZ was looking for two more “easy” wins, they were disappointed. If you were a spectator, however, today delivered some of the most exciting drama of AC34.

Racing continues tomorrow, with both teams needing a total of nine points to win the Cup. Stay tuned!