One Terrible Tack

A Single Tack at the America’s Cup Hands Race Five to ETNZ.

Oracle Team USA

Frustration showed on the faces of Oracle Team USA members as they handed Race Five to Emirates Team New Zealand at the 34th America's Cup.Courtesy America's Cup

Sporting fortunes are often won and lost in mere seconds. Today, Oracle Team USA—Defenders of the 34th America’s Cup—experienced a humiliating loss to Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) in the span of mere boat lengths, all tripped by two simple words: foiling tack.

A rewind. The day started with puffy breezes and a strong flood tide. The boats entered the starting zone, and Oracle looked fast, earning a windward position off the line and commanding the fast lane all the way to the first mark, which they rounded clear ahead. For the first time, Oracle was demonstrating serious pace, exhibiting speeds that appeared to be superior to their Kiwi rivals.

Then, approaching the first gate, Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s skipper, called for a foiling tack, and the wheels promptly abandoned the bus. Spithill spun the helm, the grinders did their thing, and the bows dramatically lifted. But rather than staying high on her foils, the boat’s speed plummeted. Oracle’s afterguard watched in horror as their carefully tended, 140-meter lead evaporated and ETNZ took control.

Problems compounded for the American-flagged team as ETNZ gained leverage and immediately sailed into Alcatraz Island’s protective tidal cone. Mysteriously, Spithill and John Kostecki, Oracle’s tactician (and a San Francisco native), kept their hulls in some of the course’s stickiest waters. Oracle’s racecourse horrors intensified as ETNZ pulled a horizon job, adding more real estate to their already-thick portfolio, beating Oracle across the finish line by a pregnant one minute and five seconds.

The gun fired, ETNZ savored a fly-by past a seawall populated with elated fans, and—minutes later—Oracle dropped the bomb: They would stand down for Race Six. AC34 Protocol affords each team a “card,” which—common wisdom maintains—was intended to give teams an escape hatch should they suffer a mechanical calamity. But instead of limping ashore, Oracle instead went sailing, lighting up their foils and clearly signaling that their meltdown was psychological, not mechanical.

Less than two hours later, a sober-looking Spithill, accompanied by his strategist, Tom Slingsby (not Kostecki), faced a press corps that asked brutally hard questions. Dean Barker and Ray Davies, ETNZ’s skipper and tactician, also attended, but I can assure you that their seats were far cooler than Oracle’s. “We need to regroup,” Spithill admitted. “It’s obvious that we need to make some changes.”

The grilling continued as to what these changes could entail, and whether this simply involves hardware, or whether Kostecki could potentially be replaced for Thursday’s racing. Spithill, proving that he does in fact have ice water flooding his veins, instead questioned his own job security: “You can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next, mate.”

While assumptions often spawn ugly children, fans can almost-certainly expect a retooled Oracle to appear from today’s ashes. Look for different soft sails, different daggerboards and likely a different afterguard.

For ETNZ, today could likely prove to be the pivotal race of the Cup, as they now solidly command the psychological edge. Counting the brass tacks, the Kiwis—who retain their get-out-of-jail-free card—only need to win five more races, while Oracle must scalp the next ten.

While I’m not a betting man, now might be an excellent time to start scoping out berthing space in Auckland for AC35.