Underdogs off their Chains

First races of AC34 add serious octane to struggling event.

America's Cup 34 Day One

The Kiwis of Emirates Team New Zealand bested America's Team Oracle 2-0 in the first day of racing at the 34th America's CupCourtesy America's Cup

Let’s face it: This summer’s Louis Vuitton Cup was — at best — boring. Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) bulldozed their competition, easily dispatching Luna Rossa Challenge and skipping their tussle with Artemis Racing altogether. That sense of ennui evaporated the second that Oracle Team USA — the Defenders of the 34th America’s Cup — joined ETNZ today in the starting area for Race One of the 34th America’s Cup, both boats exceeding 30 knots as the clock wound down to zero. The starting gun sounded and the two foil-borne catamarans exploded across the starting line, matching speeds and wind angles before Dean Barker—ETNZ’s skipper—forced Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s skipper, into a subservient position at the first mark as the two wingsail-powered rocketships nearly collided.

So much for fears that AC34 would be a walk-away contest; so much for the purported claims of underdog status issued from both camps.

Tension pulsed throughout the America’s Cup Park in downtown San Francisco as passing lanes opened and racecourse fortunes changed. ETNZ retook the lead on the course’s one upwind leg, demonstrating the tack-sharp sailing skills that have defined this sailing team since the beginning of this Cup cycle. Hordes of Kiwi fans, many of whom travelled halfway around the globe to see their team compete for the Auld Mug, were not restrained when ETNZ crossed the line 36 seconds ahead of Oracle.

The wind uncharacteristically cooperated for a second contest, with Oracle this time entering the starting area first. Despite this small pre-planned difference, ETNZ again earned the coveted windward position despite an aggressive attempt by Spithill to “hook” Barker to leeward that almost ended in mashed-up carbon fiber. While some spectators questioned the umpires’ decision not to issue a penalty (Oracle’s tactician, John Kostecki, himself wasn’t even sure if contact had been made), calamity was avoided but not without a hit to Oracle’s speed and position as Spithill watched Barker sprint into the commanding position by the first mark.

Call it the benefit of superior racecourse real estate, but Barker’s body language looked relaxed and confident throughout race two, while Spithill’s facial expression appeared steeped in frustration. The passing-lane opportunities that defined race one were absent in race two as ETNZ did an impressive job of covering Oracle, crossing the finishing line almost a full minute ahead of the Defender.

Ultimately, the pre-regatta rumors proved true: Both boats and both crews are in fact evenly matched, with leaderboard points being determined by fine-tune mistakes, not full-bore errors. As Glenn Ashby, ETNZ’s wing trimmer, succinctly put it, “you don’t need much of a wobble to upset the applecart.” Unfortunately for Oracle, the other rumor-cum-dockside-wisdom also prevailed: The first boat to round the first mark ultimately wins the race.

For ETNZ, these rumors are a comfortable reality, even if it means that their underdog status is forever blown. Oracle sailors will likely experience a less-than-chipper post-racing debriefing, no doubt aimed at determining exactly what upturned their apple cart and how to fix it. Quickly.

For sailing fans, however, today’s brave new realities trumpet the fact that the “Summer of Slumber” is over, replaced instead with a bare-knuckle regatta. Giddyap!