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Almost a Game Changer

Emirates Team New Zealand won the start, led down the first run, and was in full control before it lost all control.

September 15, 2013
Sailing World

AC34 Race 8: ETNZ

Without the necessary hydraulic power to tack the wing, Emirates Team New Zealand was a degree away from catastrophic capsize. ACEA/Abner Kingman

“Hydro! Hydro! Hydro!”

Those three commands will forever define the most hair-raising moment of America’s Cup 34 thus far, the moment left spectators gasping, the moment that halted Emirates Team New Zealand’s winning streak, and the one could have cost Kiwi camp the entire regatta.

The call for “hydro,” was Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, crouched mere inches from the water with the wheel in hand, in the shadow of his boat’s big red wing. Nearly 40 feet skyward on the opposite hull was his wing trimmer Glenn Ashby holding on for dear life. Barker was pleading for his grinders to keep delivering hydraulic pressure to the wing, which was stuck on the opposite tack as the boat teetered on the point of no return. The platform hung in the balance for nearly 10 seconds before it came crashing down in a plume of spray.

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“It’s about as close as you can get before the boat ends up on its side,” said Barker at the post-race press conference, looking not the least bit flummoxed, but happy to have his boat intact.

The incident came nearly three quarters up Leg 3, as the two boats were engaging on opposite tacks, ETNZ on port and Oracle Team USA on starboard. “We were having a good tussle with the Oracle boys,” said Barker. “It was sort of a marginal cross, and Ray made the call to tack just to leeward of them. It was a little bit rushed, and we weren’t quite ready.”

When he says they weren’t quite ready, that means the near-fatal mistake might well fall on the shoulders of tactician Ray Davies. The all-star tactician has been on top of his game the entire series thus far, but as the two boats approached rapidly, Davies could be heard on the onboard audio feed telling his skipper, “Marginal cross … “ and then “Happy to keep going.”

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Happy to keep going became a rushed tack, and ultimately there wasn’t enough hydraulic pressure for the wing’s camber adjustment to tack the wing. “When the boat tacks and the wing doesn’t, that’s what happens,” said Barker. “We missed the hydro in our tack, and fortunately the guys keep grinding and um … yeah … maybe [we tacked] a split second too soon. Usually you have time to prepare, and then there are times when you rush and you might miss the timing slightly. Once the timing is off, it’s hard to catch up …”

That the boat didn’t completely capsize was a miracle, which Barker attributed to, “Someone looking down on us. It cost us the race, but it came close to costing us a lot more than that.”

For his part Davies admitted that he could’ve prepped the guys a few seconds earlier, and said, “We’ll go back to the audio and analyze exactly what went wrong.”

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The unforced Kiwi error, however, was precipitated by Oracle Team USA’s ferocious upwind attack. Modifications to the boat and steps to improving their tacking technique allowed Spithill and crew to chip away at Emirates Team New Zealand’s marginal lead on Leg 3, the upwind leg that has been their downfall. After setting up for a split at the leeward gate, Oracle worked the left side (shoreside) of the course very effectively, not allowing the New Zealanders to leg out, and keeping the race in the middle of the course–gaining at every meeting.

“They were going well, said Davies. “I’m not sure whether they were making it on tacks or shifts. They got a couple of good lefties—one off Aquatic Park that looked really nice. There were nice gainers in there, and we were within a few seconds up the beat. I felt there was better current offshore for us, but that created a choppier sea state, so maybe that was a tradeoff.”

Regardless, the racing was intensely close, perhaps too close for Davies to make the crossing call with confidence, and if it weren’t for the quick maneuvering and anticipation of Spithill, the near capsize could have been much, much worse for both teams.

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Spithill said he was intending to bear away to set the “hook” [getting his bow to leeward and into a controlling position] when he saw what was happening. “We almost went into a crash tack,” he said. “I was surprised—I thought they were going to go over.” Had he dipped and been to leeward when the ETNZ boat started capsizing, wings could have locked, and carnage would have been spread across San Francisco Bay.

Luckily that was avoided and Oracle sailed away clean to a 52-second win. Emirates picked up a penalty in the process, which became a moot point because they were slow enough already getting themselves re-orientated.

The win was a morale booster for the Oracle camp, but more significantly, it wiped away the last of the two-race penalty they carried into the series, which in effect creates a new start for the team, no longer carrying a -1 in its scoreline.

With Race 9 abandoned on Leg 3 due to winds exceeding the upper limit, a race in which the New Zealanders were firmly in command of, Oracle now need to win nine races while the New Zealanders only three.

“The whole crew were encouraged,” said OTUSA strategist Tom Slingsby. “Upwind we were sailing the shifts better, our tacks were better, and the speed was better. We made some changes to the boat, and they seem to be good steps. We’re encouraged.”

Those changes included removing the longer “spine” used to tack the code zero and replacing it with their shorter one. The team reportedly flew in designers and boatbuilders for yesterday’s lay-day modifications, but Spithill wasn’t forthcoming with anything more than the obvious spine change. “We’ll keep changing the boat,” he said. “Today, to come from behind on the upwind leg, was a big boost for the guys. The design, engineering, and shore team worked hard yesterday and are rewarded with a win.”

Race 8 Performance Data

Course: 5 Legs/10.16 nautical miles

Elapsed Time: OTUSA – 23:09, ETNZ – 24:01

Delta: OTUSA +:52

Total distance sailed: OTUSA – 11.4 NM, ETNZ – 11.7 NM

Average Speed: OTUSA – 29.90 knots (34 mph), ETNZ – 29.32 knots (34 mph)

Top Speed: OTUSA – 44.58 knots (51 mph), ETNZ – 47.02 knots (54 mph)

Windspeed: Average – 16.6 knots, Peak – 19.6 knots

Number of Tacks/Jibes: OTUSA – 8/8, ETNZ – 9/7

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