Dark Days Down Under

Oracle Team USA edges two bullets closer to defending the 34th America’s Cup.

34th America's Cup

Who wants it more? Oracle Team USA, or Emirates Team New Zealand? There is just one race left, and it will decide the winner of the 34th America's Cup.ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

Spring might be blossoming in Auckland, but I can assure you that these are dark ‘n’ stormy days at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Just a week ago, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) was on match point to win the Auld Mug from the speed-challenged Defender, Oracle Team USA. Skipper Dean Barker and his ETNZ mates are still on match point, but—from the Kiwi perspective—the unthinkable has occurred. Skipper Jimmy Spithill and his American-flagged friends have retooled their boat and evened the score after delivering a seven-bullet, tour-de-force performance.

Today was a tale of two entirely different races. Race 17 saw Oracle enter the starting box first and on the favored port tack. Both boats lit up their foils in the pre-start samba before engaging in decal-shaving, boat-to-boat maneuvers. Barker hesitated at a critical moment, allowing Oracle to gain the favored leeward position. Spithill's second hook attempt stuck, driving the Kiwis up, up, UP, zeroing out their velocity made good and forcing contact, twice. The results were devastating: Barker cleared the first mark 18 seconds astern, having already burned off his two umpire-assigned penalties.

“It was an absolute shocker—we tried to make a bit of a play [at the start] but we put ourselves in a very bad spot,” admitted a rattled-looking Barker during a between-races interview. “The boat is going well, we just need to get off the starting line.”

Dockside wisdom agreed with Barker’s assessment: If the Kiwis could just win the start, the Cup would be theirs. Race 18, however, proved that judgment, timing and boat speed are everything.

ETNZ entered the starting box first and on port tack, and Barker aggressively defended the leeward-boat position, eventually establishing a close-quarters overlap and forcing the Defender up in the last pre-start seconds. The Kiwis commanded the favored leeward position as the gun went off, allowing Barker to drive Spithill to weather on the first leg. Millions of Kiwi fans were smiling as ETNZ blasted around the first mark in the pole position.

The first great mystery occurred when Baker allowed Spithill to gybe away, eventually creating a split at the bottom gate. The Kiwis rounded the traditionally favored left-hand mark and hunted for tidal relief in the cone-shaped lee of Alcatraz Island as Oracle worked up the inshore side of the course before changing boards. The boats converged at pace, with ETNZ on starboard, and Barker could be heard asking tactician Ray Davies about their next move. “Hit him,” was Davies’ response, meaning to tack on top of Oracle and dump them with wing wash; excellent advice, but Barker went too soon (the day’s second great question mark). In a jaw-dropping display of raw boat speed, Oracle pounced into their fast mode and rolled ETNZ to windward, before immediately tacking away from the course boundary.

The demoralized Kiwis had no choice but to play follow the leader all the way home.

For Oracle fans, today's bullets represent the greatest comeback in America's Cup history, but for the Kiwis it's a soon-to-be national disaster, as it's now painfully obvious that Oracle's momentum comes from their aggressive starts and their full-on speed advantage. Moreover, it's also now clear that Oracle's well-stocked shed, its brilliant designers, its multitude of reserve toys and its ample get-fast-NOW budget have made a massive difference, allowing the sailors to even the score at eight to eight—match point, all up.

Racing resumes tomorrow in a high-stakes do-or-die fight that will make careers (while potentially ending others) and define people’s lives. Giddyap!