In a dominating, clinical performance on the waters of Bermuda’s Great Sound, Emirates Team New Zealand thrashed Oracle Team USA in two consecutive races on Sunday to take a commanding 6-1 lead in the 35th edition of the America’s Cup. The Kiwis now need only one more victory to bring the Cup home to Auckland for the first time since 2003, when they lost the trophy to an Alinghi team skippered by countryman Russell Coutts, the driving force behind both this year’s Cup match and Oracle Team USA. It would certainly be sweet redemption.
Much has been made of the changes Oracle has purportedly made to its daggerboards and rudders – the rumor mill has it the team has shaved 100 kilograms of weight from the boat in an effort to get quicker – but skipper Jimmy Spithill and his crew have continued to suffer the consequences of unforced errors on the racecourse. In today’s first race the critical mistake came during the pre-start, when on the final approach to the starting line Spithill – perhaps mindful of being over early during Saturday’s racing – bore away briefly and opened the door for the Kiwi’s to break away unchallenged. The American’s hiccup allowed New Zealand to hit the line making 26 knots and speed away to an early lead.
“We had to wipe out a little bit of boat speed and did a little turn we didn’t need to do,” Spithill later said. “That was certainly a mistake.”
Emirates Team New Zealand capitalized on the break to maintain modest leads around the first two marks of the 7-leg race. Then, on the third leg of the contest, they broke cover over Oracle and found a significant wind shift on the left-hand side of the course, stretching a reasonably tight 50-meter lead into a whopping 285-meter advantage. Though Oracle would shorten that gap during the second half of the race, it was too much to overcome; the Kiwi’s led the rest of the way around the track to earn a wire-to-wire 12-second victory that felt far greater.
The day’s second race also hinged on a pre-start maneuver, this one executed to precision by Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Peter Burling. Prior to the Cup finals, conventional wisdom held it that one of the areas where Oracle held an advantage over the New Zealanders was in the technical art of match racing. But it was aggressive tactics by Burling that left Spithill and his mates in the dust at the outset of the race. It was a simple move made to precision: the Kiwi’s got to leeward of the Americans and took them head to wind. Oracle stalled, the New Zealander’s bore away and easily won the start. To add insult to injury, Burling waved at this rivals – as it to say, “See ya,” – as the Kiwi’s flew away and across the starting line with Oracle 18 seconds in arrears.
Oracle did not help their cause when they drew a penalty on Leg 3 for sailing outside the course boundary – yet another unforced error – but by that point the outcome was more or less a foregone conclusion. In the end, it was an old-fashioned horizon job, putting the New Zealander’s at match point in the series.
Two statistics helped further tell the day’s story. In the second race, the New Zealander’s achieved 100 percent “fly time,” meaning they sailed on their foils – through every tack and jibe – for the entire duration of the contest. In other words, they performed flawlessly. And in both the day’s races, though the boatspeeds were remarkably similar, the Kiwi’s sailed hundreds of meters less, meaning they were also surgically efficient. It proved to be a double whammy for Oracle Team USA.
Now, Spithill and his mates are in the same position they found themselves in during the last America’s Cup in San Francisco – on the brink of elimination to a New Zealand squad and with no room for error. They simply cannot afford to lose another race. “The plan wasn’t to be in this position again,” said Spithill. “But here we are.”
Oracle’s skipper said his team couldn’t afford to look at the big picture but needed to win one race at a time. On Monday, we’ll see if Spithill has the makings of another miracle up his sleeve. One race at a time.