Sudden Death

Emirates Team New Zealand advances to match point in the 34th America’s Cup.

Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA

Emirates Team New Zealand once again beats Oracle Team USA, setting up match-point racing at the 34th America's Cup.ACEA/Balazs Gardi

I don't envy Oracle Team USA, Defenders of the 34th America's Cup. They started this Cup with noticeably slower pace and shakier maneuvers than the Challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), but the American-flagged squad has worked tirelessly to improve. The results have been staggering: Where ETNZ once commanded upwind sailing, Oracle is now in the hunt.

Trouble is, Oracle blossomed too late.

A gathering breeze and a strong ebb tide favored the leeward side of today’s starting line. The clock spun backwards, and the skippers entered their familiar tango, with Oracle hanging to windward of the Kiwis. The gun fired, and Dean Barker (ETNZ’s skipper) pulled off a masterful job of aggressively dialing up Jimmy Spithill (Oracle’s skipper) on Leg One, noticeably slowing the Defender and earning a three-second advantage around the first mark.

Sheets groaned and winch drums squealed as Oracle gybed off first, with Ray Davies, ETNZ’s tactician, wisely holding their board to set up the rest of their run. Gybes ensued, with ETNZ maintaining pole position, albeit by ebbing-and-flooding margins. The yachts converged, and ETNZ aggressively positioned themselves between Oracle and the bottom gate, trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent Oracle from splitting marks.

The Kiwis used to own Leg Three, but no more as Oracle again demonstrated equal upwind pace. Davies and Barker used the boundary to bounce Oracle around for a few tacks before letting the Defender go. The strategy paid dividends as the Kiwis soon commanded a 140-meter lead, which translated to a 17-second lead around the windward gate.

The race should have been over, but Oracle made some miraculous gains on the Alcatraz-side of the downhill run, setting themselves up to lay the final mark. The Kiwis traded real estate for leverage, crossing in front of Oracle and gybing, aggressively positioning themselves between the mark and their opponent. The gambit worked, as Spithill was left with few options others than (slowly) following ETNZ around the last mark and listening to the roar of the predominantly Kiwi crowd as ETNZ won by 15 seconds.

As the old sailing proverb goes, “win the start, win the race.”

The breeze and the ebb tide built throughout the afternoon, but things looked promising for a second race. Oracle entered the starting box first and on port tack this time, but instead of each team executing their familiar moves, the Kiwis split away. Sails luffed, rudders turned and the clock ticked down. Then—30 seconds out—ETNZ sprang to pace, driving for the starting line. Oracle respond too late and was forced to bear away hard and protest, with ETNZ enjoying clear air … just as the Race Committee’s anemometer registered winds two-tenths of a knot above the maximum limit, forcing the race (and, ultimately, the day) to be abandoned.

For Oracle, this tiny puff was a desperately needed lifeline: “Win the start, win the race.” For millions of Kiwi fans, however, this was a frustrating blow. Oracle was luffing, and ENTZ were poised to deliver the mercy kill. (Worse still, the umpires discarded Oracle’s pending protest.)

The hard-edged reality for the Defender is that ETNZ is now one point from unseating the Cup. Even a star-spangled optimist would struggle to wager that Oracle can realistically stage an eight-point recovery.

Still, based on the never-say-die attitude coming from Spithill, I’m counting on the Defender to put up a solid fight tomorrow, for what could be the final races of AC34. Stay tuned!