AC34: Game Faces

Both men are confident in their teams and their platforms. One is polished, the other shaken. One is lean, the other is flush with spares. The America's Cup Best of 17 starts Saturday, Sept. 7., and here's what the lead men have to say from the opening press conference.

Sailing World

Barker and Spithill

The Drivers. The prize.ACEA / PHOTO GILLES MARTIN-RAGET

For the first time since the beginning of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the press conference room was jam-packed with reporters of all nationalities this morning, standing room only for photographers and journalists all vying for the opportunity to glean even just a tiny clue as to which team may have it over the other in the battle for the 34th America's Cup. The first race starts at 1:10 p.m. on Saturday, and both Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand confirm that they are race ready.

But, the teams come into this highly competitive race from very different places. OTUSA’s taken a ride through a tirade of ups and downs, from capsizing a boat to accusations of cheating that have resulted in severe penalties to the team, whereas ETNZ today celebrated their 100th day of sailing their AC72, a team milestone, announced team helmsman Dean Barker with pride.

Spithill wasn’t quite as jovial or relaxed as he’s been known to be, but he put on a strong front amidst difficult questions pertaining to the issue of the jury decision which will see the American team begin the event two races down and minus the experience of Jimmy’s longtime right-hand man and grinder-trimmer, Dirk “Cheese" de Ridder. It’s been a difficult time, says Spithill:

“I think it is [difficult] in any team sport when you lose a key player four days out from the event you’ve been working towards for four years. In this case arguably I’ve been working with Dirk for six years; it’s not ideal. However, do I think we can still win? Yes, I think Kyle [Langford]'s a great talent. He’s someone I have raced with in the past and enjoyed success with. We’ve all got around him to support him, and he’s jumped in and I expect him to step up and take it on.”

Spithill was quick to remind, “We’ve got a fantastic team, and I think the fact that during the last two years we’ve gone head to head against Dean Barker in match racing multihulls, he’s never beaten us.”

Australian Langford is the youngest member of the OTUSA team, and Spithill admits he’s spent a significantly less amount of time sailing with him, “I’ve really only sailed with Dirk for the past six years,” Spithill said.

OTUSA has elected to race its Boat 2 starting Saturday, claiming no particular reason for choosing that boat as they both pass measurement.

“They’re both really competitive,” Spithill explained. “All of us, we’d be happy to race either boat. We’re in a great position with the two boats, we’re ready to roll. We just favor Boat 2 a little bit more, the fact that it's just a few developments ahead of the first boat, but they’re very similar.”

Two boats is definitely one advantage that the American team dearly needs and has up its sleeve. With Spithill’s bulldog reputation, he’s one fiercely competitive human being, the knowledge that he has two race-ready boats at his disposal may mean he can afford to take some extra risks.

“I think with these boats there is always risk, and to get the most out of them you’ve got to push the whole way,” Spithill says. “I think both teams will do that. Do I think we have an advantage because we have two boats? Yes, because if there’s a big issue out on the water, our [other] boat is ready to go. I’m not sure ETNZ have got their second boat ready to go. We’re setting up for the fight of our lives. We're not a team that shies away from adversity or challenge.”

When asked how his team reacted to de Ridder’s suspension, Spithill, with conviction, stated that he was shocked. “I’ve raced with Dirk for the past six years. He is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met. I never once questioned his ethics. He’s very competitove and a guy I like racing with. We’ve won a lot of races in a lot of different classes. He’ll be missed by the team, but saying that, we’ve got depth and talent in our team, and we’ve been working hard the past few days. I’m confident the boys will get out there and put up a good fight.”

John Kostecki, OTUSA tactician and brother-in-law to ousted de Ridder, echoed Spithill’s sentiments, “We’ll really miss him. We’re in contact with him all the time and he’s in great spirits. But as Jimmy said we have to move forward and he’s given us that respect. The best thing we can do for him is win the America’s Cup.”

On the Kiwi front, it’s clear the Kiwis don’t take this event lightly. Says Barker, “We’re going to see a very close battle between two teams who are very well prepared, but we don’t know and they don’t know who is faster. We’re going to put everything into it that we possibly can, and we’ve done all the preparation, but if we’re not fast enough, we’re not fast enough. It’s not more complicated than that. We’re really excited to be getting out racing and the team is in very good spirits.”

But, the speed differences between the two teams is a big unknown and the one factor that could make or break the event. The AC72 is a development class and both teams, especially OTUSA have had limited time on the water. With more time, things could always be done better, agrees Barker.

“You could always do things slightly better. The decisions you make now in hindsight could probably be quite different. In saying that, you work with what you’ve got, and we’re very happy with the way that we’ve improved our boat’s performance since July last year. They are very, very difficult boats to get right.”

But given another six months, Spithill thinks these boats would only get much faster. “I think we’re just scraping the surface,” Spithill says. “I think both teams go out each day and break their personal best. In another six months, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’d see 50s.”

The atmosphere at the America’s Cup Park in San Francisco is rife with excitement. It really does feel like these two teams, longtime rivals, are set to go into battle. Foil-wise and aero-dynamically, the boats are close; both helmsman state their boats are optimized for the range of conditons that San Francisco Bay can throw at them. ETNZ is hoping that the time they’ve put in on the water and knowing their boat will serve them well, while the American team are counting on the hometown advantage together with a team that is deep in experience and talent.

Says Kostecki, a San Francisco local, “If the boats end up being somewhat equal in speed it’s going to be a good boat race. It’ll come down to the sailors, the tactics and the cool maneuvers, that’ll be the difference.”