I concluded last month’s diary with the statement: “After the strong showing by Spithill and Ainslie at this event, it’s the defender who has the most reasons to be cheerful at the moment.” Ummmm.... can I take that back, please?
When I wrote that, it was off the back of two Oracle team boats taking the top two places at the final America’s Cup World Series event of the year. James Spithill might have been the only one to pitchpole his AC45 during the regatta, yet still he bounced back to win the competition, narrowly ahead of new team colleague Ben Ainslie.
About two days after I wrote that, Spithill pitchpoled again, but this time aboard the team’s multimillion dollar AC72 catamaran. This was never meant to happen. A pitchpole in an AC45 has become commonplace, something we’ve come to expect at least once per event. It’s surprising that there hasn’t yet been a serious injury. But falling from 60 or 70 feet in the air? Of course someone’s going to get hurt.
And yet, amazingly - and thankfully - no one was seriously hurt. But the boat was. A 5-knot current carried the upturned platform past the Golden Gate Bridge and many miles out to sea before the team tenders commenced the long, slow tow back. By the time they got the boat home, it was 1 o’clock in the morning, about 10 hours after the pitchpole. Whilst the platform emerged relatively unscathed, the giant rig - worth an estimated $2m - was trashed.
Perhaps more important than the money is the lost time, with Oracle not expecting to get any further AC72 sailing done this side of Christmas. It seems like all the designers have opted to put their 72-footers on a form of hydrofoils, enabling the twin hulls to lift clear of the water and accelerate to speeds approaching or even exceeding 40 knots. Observers of the Oracle catamaran suggest it has looked far from stable when riding above the water, an accident waiting to happen, perhaps.
By contrast, on the far side of the Pacific Ocean, Emirates Team New Zealand’s 72-footer has been flying around the Hauraki Gulf on its foils quite happily, and the Kiwis are already homing on the detail - adding aerodynamic coamings and relatively trivial stuff compared with the back-to-the-drawing-board challenge staring back at Oracle’s design team. Luna Rossa have demonstrated the value of their close collaboration with the Kiwis by getting up and foiling within a few hours of launching their sleek silver machine in late October. It has been a much more cautious launch by Artemis Racing in November, with the Swedish team getting its big red boat wet on San Francisco Bay, but not yet really pushing it. Which is understandable, when you remember how their brand new wing rig came crashing down in Valencia earlier this year, and now having witnessed the recent Oracle catastrophe.
So, from all the talk being that no one can possibly take the America’s Cup away from Oracle next September, now all the ‘smart talk’ is that Auckland is already preparing for a homecoming celebration. Spithill doesn’t see it that way, of course: “There’s no question this is a setback. This will be a big test for our team. But I've seen these guys in a similar situation in the past campaign before we won the America's Cup. A strong team will bounce back from it. This won't stop us from winning the America's Cup.” Perhaps not, but the game has certainly got a lot tighter.
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