High-Stakes Head Games

Oracle earns two more bullets, adding doubt to ETNZ’s dominance at the America’s Cup.

Oracle Team USA at the 34th America's Cup

Oracle Team USA sails defiantly, winning two more races and surviving to continue its defense at the 34th America's Cup.ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

Has Jimmy Spithill spooked Dean Barker?

For yet another day, skipper Dean Barker and his teammates aboard Emirates Team New Zealand have stood on the brink of success, a single point separating them from their dreams of winning the 34th America's Cup. Today, however, two bullets (and some key puffs and shifts) miraculously allowed the Defender, Oracle Team USA, to survive an additional day of highly tactical do-or-die racing. For Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), these losses have exposed two uncomfortable truths: Any initial speed advantage they once commanded is now gone, and luck simply hasn't been smiling on the blokes from Down Under.

Oracle entered the starting box of Race 14 first and on port tack, aggressively protecting the desired leeward position. Barker visibly opted for the line’s weather-end, and Oracle skipper Spithill pushed him way up before crossing the line at pace and in the favored position. Barker missed a critical hook move on the first leg, and Spithill luffed the Kiwis, winning the first mark by six seconds.

Spithill strategically pitted himself between the mark and his rivals while slowly nurturing his lead on the downhill run. Oracle’s bows aimed for the leeward gate’s left-hand side, the wheels spun and Spithill drove for the lee of Alcatraz Island, with the Kiwis (eventually) giving chase.

Oracle’s afterguard pulled off a brilliant move at the top of Leg Three, executing one additional tack to lay the gate’s right-hand side. They leapt onto their foils as the Kiwis still clawed to weather. ETNZ made a few strong yo-yo comebacks, but a series of wind holes and unfortunate shifts barricaded all passing lanes.

ETNZ: 8. Oracle: 4.

Today’s flood tide allowed for different pre-start maneuvers than the ones we saw during last week’s ebb-tide cycle, with the two boats engaging in a high-anxiety crossing that paid dividends for Oracle. Spithill again luffed the Kiwis, forcefully winning the day’s second start.

Both boats looked quick approaching the first mark, but ETNZ momentarily skidded off of her foils, scything any hopes for an overlap at the mark and allowing Oracle to round three seconds ahead. Several gybes ensued, and ETNZ succumbed to the lure of the (purportedly) faster waters along the waterfront, rather than chasing the stronger breeze in the middle of the course. Oracle's afterguard chose differently, and instantly their 130-meter lead swelled to 700-plus meters.

Oracle again selected the gate’s left-hand side, which they rounded a minute ahead of ETNZ, gunning for Alcatraz’s protective tidal cone. Some smart moves by ETNZ’s afterguard shrunk Oracle’s lead to 250 meters — the outer edge of an AC72’s tactical-striking distance — but the Defender just kept foiling to weather at 30-plus knots in better air. The Kiwis methodically worked the bay’s uncharacteristically shifty, puffy air, but, ultimately, Oracle’s 32-second lead around the top gate proved unassailable.

ETNZ: 8. Oracle: 5.

After an unprecedented 15 races, Oracle has officially rejoined the hunt. “The shore team has found some extra wheels for us,” reported a reinvigorated Spithill after today’s racing. “The old girl’s got more in her.”

It will be fascinating to see what additional wick Oracle can muster, and if the Kiwis’ unlucky streak continues. Ultimately, however, ETNZ’s success hinges on Barker’s ability to win a start, which is something that we haven’t seen for several days. Racing resumes tomorrow, so stay tuned for more as we approach AC34’s high-stakes climax.