The Psychological Element

ETNZ and Oracle spilt wins as AC34’s head games begin.

America's Cup 34

Kiwi fans cheered the Emirates Team New Zealand win during Race One on Day Two, but the Americans came back to cheers after taking Race Two.Courtesy America's Cup

Have the winds of fortune shifted in the 34th America’s Cup? It depends on what portion of today’s races you watched.

Take the starts. Jimmy Spithill, skipper of Oracle Team USA, won both, employing his signature hyper-aggressive, match-racing moves. In Race Three, Spithill even forced Dean Barker, the skipper of Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), into suffering the regatta’s sole on-the-water penalty (to date), but these chess moves weren’t enough when the two boats entered into a classic tacking duel that saw ETNZ roll the Americans.

It’s good that Spithill pursues sailing and boxing, as his facial expressions go far beyond the marks that drain many poker players’ worldly fortunes. Watch the video footage, and Spithill appears relaxed when his bows are out in front; however, should ETNZ slide ahead, tension usurps his demeanor. This intensity light-switched onto Spithill’s face once ETNZ took control of Race Three, and it didn’t ebb until the Kiwis pocketed their third bullet.

Not surprisingly, the America’s Cup Park reverberated with ricocheting horn blasts and Kiwi cheers as ETNZ enjoyed a fly-by past their howling fans.

It’s unclear what sort of psychological coaching took place in between the races, but Spithill appeared calm and collected throughout Race Four, perhaps slightly shaken, but certainly not stirred, when he stuffed his bows at the third mark rounding. While this sloppy boat handling cost Oracle distance, it didn’t give Barker a passing lane.

Unlike Spithill, Barker remained unflappable, demonstrating the even-keeled nature that defines the Kiwi sailing squad in both good times and in bad. Forget stressed-out intensity: Barker’s facial expressions barely flickered between Race Three and Race Four, even if the latter put the first blemish on ETNZ’s otherwise-perfect racetrack record.

The America’s Cup Park exploded with cheers as Spithill’s bows pierced the finish line, racking up the first American win of this Cup. Kiwi fans exhibited a funky mix of disbelief (‘Our team can lose?’) and unadulterated excitement that this regatta won’t simply be a horizon job, à la this summer’s Louis Vuitton Cup. Oracle fans were ecstatic, of course, but this joy was tempered by the fact that ETNZ still commands a four-race lead and only has to win six more on-the-water tussles, while Oracle must collect ten more bullets to successfully defend.

Has the pendulum swung? Right now, I’d argue no. Oracle may have gained a psychological edge, but the Kiwi loss could hone their competitive edge and ensure that their hard-earned confidence doesn’t accidentally spill into over-confidence.

Of course, this same sharpening could benefit the Defender. “It’s good to see the team under serious pressure,” Spithill said. “Lesser teams would have crumpled. It feels good to have shifted the momentum.”

Tuesday’s racing will determine whether a psychological sea change has transpired. Spithill again: “Good energy helps the guys on board! We need all of San Francisco and the USA to get behind us.”

Based on what I’ve witnessed so far, however, the riddle of fan-base power is one that the Kiwis sussed out ages ago, and one that the American-flagged squad is still struggling to master.

Stay tuned to this space for more AC34 action as it unfurls.