Sailing’s Greatest Comeback?

Oracle Team USA wins again at the America’s Cup, begging the question, ‘Is it possible?’

Oracle Team USA

Oracle Team USA celebrates what is looking more and more like an amazing comeback.ACEA/Ricardo Pinta

Last week the entire sailing world quietly snickered when Jimmy Spithill, skipper of Oracle Team USA, the Defenders of the 34th America's Cup, confidently professed to like his unenviable situation: His team was in a deep points deficit, his boat was noticeably slower than his opponent's and the psychological edge solidly belonged to Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ). Now, however, the snickering has ceased. Oracle has bagged five out of the last five races—all under match-point, send-or-swim pressure—and the momentum has noticeably shifted, with Oracle's afterguard displaying more confidant communications and far more relaxed body language than the Kiwis.

So what’s Oracle’s secret weapon? Real-time refinement.

Oracle's designers and shore team have been logging serious overtime to boldly implement last-minute changes and go-fast ideas, ranging from different wing tunings to new foil shapes (and everything in between), and the crew has seriously improved their foil-to-foil maneuvers and their overall consistency. Also, newly drafted tactician Ben Ainslie, a five-time Olympic medalist, has formed a tight and trusting mind meld with Spithill and strategist Tom Slingsby that just seems to work.

ETNZ’s program is also working, mind you, but their advantage coming into this Cup was their perfectly choreographed crew work and always-crisp maneuvers. This impressive Kiwi display became the performance benchmark, but Oracle evolved far quicker than ETNZ was expecting. Now, the velocity-made-good numbers from the two boats are tipped in Oracle’s favor, and spectators are being treated to the mind-bending sight of two world-class teams, sailing aboard two evenly matched steeds, employing high-speed, high-stakes match-racing moves. The pressure is intense for both teams, but for Oracle, one single mistake could literally cost them the Cup—do-or-die energy that Spithill has clearly harnessed to motivate his crew.

As for today's races, everything boiled down to the start. Despite entering the starting box first and on the favored port tack, ETNZ failed to gain control of Oracle in the pre-start struggles, and the wily Spithill climbed on top of the Kiwis' hip as the timer bottomed out. Oracle found her foils first, and the sprint to the first mark was decided by a Delta of five seconds. Game over. While the Kiwis did a great job of maintaining pressure on Oracle around the track, ultimately they couldn't close the ground that they lost immediately off the starting line.

Spithill and his team are now within range of realizing the greatest comeback in America's Cup history—if not one of the biggest in sports history—and it's obvious that their strategy hinges on winning both the start and the first leg of each race before shifting into a series of aggressive-but-defensive modes. Given the level at which the Defender is now sailing, ETNZ must beat Oracle across the starting line and around the first mark if they're going to claim their elusive ninth bullet, a job that falls squarely onto skipper Dean Barker's shoulders. Unfortunately for the Kiwis, however, Barker's lifetime-achievement record against Spithill doesn't offer the kind of mathematical encouragement that they'd prefer, so perhaps now is Barker's great opportunity to embrace his increasingly stressful situation with a bit of Spithill's own brand of swagger and aggressive bravado, while remembering that he still commands the match-point advantage ... for now.

Racing resumes tomorrow at 1315 hours, local time, so stay tuned for more.