President Bill Clinton had a great expression when meeting people with troubles. He always connected by saying, “I feel your pain.” To paraphrase Mr. Clinton, “We are feeling Emirate Team New Zealand’s pain.” The fading, near winners of the America’s Cup just don’t seem to have an answer for the remarkable comeback by Oracle Team USA. The Kiwis have canceled victory celebrations, a charter flight to Auckland, and said goodbye to many fans who have patiently waited for the big win. This could be the biggest collapse in the history of the America’s Cup. Just 5 days ago ETNZ was up 8-1, but now the score is 8-6. The USA has won five straight, and are getting faster, and better with each race. What can the Kiwis do?
First a quick review of the performance differences between NZL and USA 17. At the start of Race 16, both boats were exactly 0.5 seconds behind the starting line according to the AC LiveLine data. In 12.2 knots of wind (at least what I read on the race committee boat, Regardless) OTUSA lifted up on its foils immediately after the start. New Zealand did not lift off its foils and was rolled by 17 to windward. On the downwind leg, the American boat slowly stretched out. Halfway down Leg 3, NZL rolled out its genneker. The speeds were nearly identically. Not taking any chances, OTUSA rolled out its gennaker. At the leeward gate, the boats split sides. Against a 1.5-knot flood current, and sailing in spotty 11 to 15 knot winds, the two boats seemed even in speed. Just last week NZL would have sailed right past USA 17. Not anymore.
So let’s say you have to defeat a boat that is faster reaching, has a slight edge downwind, can foil earlier, and can maneuver just as well as you. What could you do to reach the finish line ahead? The first step is to win the start. NZL skipper, Dean Barker has won several starts. He knows he can do it. OTUSA’s Australian skipper, James Spithill, understands that Barker is really good and will try not to take risky chances. Barker must be bold, and try something that Spithill doesn’t expect. Against a boat that appears to accelerate faster, Barker needs to start to leeward and ahead, and force USA 17 away from the first mark. On the downwind leg, Kiwi tactician Ray Davies must look forward and keep his boat in stronger winds. At times he should call to cover closely, while at other times he must be bold when he is sure his boat is in better wind. These are tricky calls, but this is the moment for greatness. If NZL can round ahead at the leeward gate they must cover USA_ 17_ and use their starboard advantage and wind shadow to force USA 17 to make extra tacks, or sail in disturbed wind. If the USA gets behind on Leg 3, watch them make some desperate moves. Life is good when you are leading, but things can change if you get behind. When the hard truth of defeat is on the horizon, mistakes are often made.
In my long career on the match-race circuit, and in a number of America’s Cup trials, I have been on a slower boat, and still found a way to win. (I have also been on faster boats and still lost). Every athlete is capable of mistakes including the crew of USA 17. For NZL, it starts with the belief that they can win. Dean Barker and his crew have already won eight races, and they have been ahead in three others that were canceled. Bad luck for NZL, but you can’t look back. It hasn’t been so easy for OTUSA either. They had to eat a 2-point penalty and yet have kept fighting back. Barker and his tactician, Ray Davies, have been mates since their earliest days. There is a real trust between them. Together they can find a way to win. Right now they need a spark to break out of this slump. I am not sure why team leader, Grant Dalton, has been off the crew roster, but he needs to get back on the boat. Dalton may have an injury, or some other issue that keeps him out of the lineup, but I think his presence makes a difference.
Completing this America’s Cup feels like waiting for astronaut John Glenn’s space launch in 1962. Glenn was on the launch pad for weeks before his rocket, Friendship 7, was ready, and the weather conditions favorable. Like Glenn’s experience years ago, the mental strain on those involved in this Cup is causing fatigue. Everyone expected this to be long over. According to yachting historian John Rousmaniere, the longest span in days for a Cup match was back in 1899. The NYYC race committee tried to complete races starting on Oct. 3 between Columbia and Shamrock. The last race was completed on Oct 20. That’s 18 days. Tomorrow is the 18th day of the 34th Defense.
If NZL can win the opening race scheduled to start at 1:15 local time, the Cup is over. If NZL loses, they might pull a card that allows them to postpone the second race of the day. But Dean Barker said at the post-race press conference that they would not. We will see. The wind is expected to blow harder tomorrow. Luckily, we will have a flood tide of 1.6 knots for the first race, raising the 23-knot wind limit to 24.6 knots. I doubt the wind will build that high. Calling for a time out would force the Kiwis to sail two races on Wednesday. The stakes are incredibly high. But, when you think about it, where would you rather be than on one of the AC72s for a race of this magnitude?
The crowds today were paltry. I counted a maximum of 25 spectator boats on the water. Some of the bleachers along the waterfront are being dismantled. This is in stark contrast to the huge crowds that were watching over the past few weekends. For most people, normal life needs to continue. The dramatic drop in attendance reminds me of 1969, when an estimated 400,000 people attended the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The last act on the list of star-studded rock bands that performed throughout a three-day weekend did not get to play until Monday morning. Jimmy Hendrix gave the performance of his career, and yet, only 25,000 were on hand to hear him.
Sometime over the next one, two or three days, either Oracle Team USA, or Emirates Team New Zealand will win the America’s Cup. Every race will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network starting at 4 p.m. Eastern time (1pm Pacific). These will be epic races for the ages. One team will feel pain, the other will be somewhere between elated and ecstatic.