America's Cup - September 2013

How will history look back on the 34th America’s Cup? Will it be considered an aberration, or will we look back at the Summer of Sailing in San Francisco through sepia-tinted spectacles, and wonder why all Cups couldn’t be like that one?

Despite the deluge of criticism heaped on the Cup this summer, I suspect we’ll look back upon the 34th edition with fond memories. The contest between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA was unpredictable, nailbiting, edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Who could have foreseen such a thrilling finale to what had been - until the America’s Cup Match - an extremely dull summer’s racing? The Louis Vuitton Cup was tedious and predictable, with Artemis Racing no match for Luna Rossa, and Luna Rossa no match for Emirates Team New Zealand. The one remaining hope was that the Kiwis and Americans might be closely matched, although most pundits fully expected a pattern to emerge in the first half of the first race.

In past America’s Cups, it has become apparent within the first couple of minutes that either the Defender or Challenger has a speed edge that is likely to prove decisive in the outcome. When you introduce a new class of boat to the contest, not least something as revolutionary as a wing-rigged, hydrofoiled, flying 72-foot catamaran, someone’s going to get the technical challenge more right than the other. Right? Which explains the gross mis-matches of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

How wrong we were. Race one was a humdinger, full of drama and unpredictability. Launching off the start line on to a 40-knot tight reach, New Zealand held a narrow lead around the first turning mark downwind. The Kiwis soon moved to a 150m lead and already it looked like Dean Barker’s slick team would run away with the Cup. By the bottom gate, however, Jimmy Spithill had closed the gap to 4 seconds. Not only that, but the Oracle cat seized the lead up the windward leg, only to give the Kiwis too much leverage and allowing the Challenger to stretch away for a 36-second win. The Kiwis would go on to win the next two, setting a worrying trend for the home team.

A 7-second win in race 4 looked like Spithill - who was winning most of the starts - had found a way of keeping his arch rival Barker at bay. But any optimism was short-lived. Another defeat in race 5 saw Oracle play its joker card to postpone the second race of the day, in order to find a way of getting back on level terms with the Kiwis who had a speed edge upwind, both in terms of speed and tactics.

The shore crew worked through the next two nights to make some small but significant alterations to the boat, and in place of the 49-year-old tactician from San Francisco, John Kostecki, appeared a 36-year-old four-time Olympic Champion, Ben Ainslie from Lymington.

Ainslie’s impact was not instant. The Americans lost the next race. But over the next few matches the progress of development on board the American boat - both in human and technical terms - was extraordinary. The sailors were getting better by the race, but it was clear that behind the scenes the whole Oracle unit of 130 people was working like crazy to improve the package.

If there was a tipping point in the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams, it was symbolised in race 8 with the most heart-stopping of moments. The Americans appeared to have gained the measure of the Kiwis on the upwind leg, negating New Zealand’s upwind speed advantage early in the series. Engaged in a fierce tacking duel, the fourth time the teams came together, Barker began an attempt at a lee-bow tack but the boat lost its hydraulic pressure at a critical moment and the wing wouldn’t flip through on to the new tack. The wing turned into a wall, pushing the boat up on its ear and on the verge of a capsize. “Hydro, hydro, hydro!” came the call from Aussie wing trimmer Glenn Ashby. None of the crew abandoned his post, but the grinders kept grinding away and regained hydraulic pressure in the nick of time, popping the wing through, resulting in the starboard hull crashing back down again.

The Kiwis were shaken, but it could have been so much worse, a possible death blow to their campaign. The Kiwis recovered their composure but the Americans went on to an easy win. Momentum was beginning to swing in the Defender’s favour.

Boatspeeds throughout the series were increasing almost by the race. Where in the Louis Vuitton Cup, 25 knots was a good top speed upwind, in the America’s Cup the two boats were foiling upwind at well in excess of 30 knots.

The pace of development of the American boat in particular was breathtaking, and Spithill and his crew must have been wondering what might have been if they had started the America’s Cup with the level of speed and performance they had found by half way through the series. Even on match point, with the Kiwis sitting on a score line of 8-2 (8 wins to 4 wins on the water, if you take away the two penalty points for Oracle’s cheating saga), Spithill was trotting out the mantra: “This is a long way from over.” The thing was, the 33-year-old Australian really looked like he meant it. A good boxer in his spare time, Spithill kept on bouncing off the ropes, and riding his good share of luck too.

Sitting tantalising close to victory on match point, twice the Kiwis were leading when the wind exceeded the pre-determined limits and racing was abandoned. On another occasion they were leading by a huge margin in light winds, and came within a mile of the finish line before the 40-minute time limit dashed their hopes. “Better to be lucky than good,” admitted Ainslie with a smile afterwards.

And still the Americans kept on coming, getting faster by the race, faster than the Kiwis! With four straight victories Oracle brought the series to 5-8. Could they yet perform the greatest escape ever seen in Cup history? That, I can’t tell you, because the 34th America’s Cup just kept going and going and going. But this magazine had to go to print! Perhaps you’ll be good enough to fill in the blanks for yourself, and we’ll do a proper review next month.




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