A Gutting Blow to Oracle

In what was described by Dean Barker as the toughest sailing conditions yet, Emirates Team New Zealand goes 4-0 by capitalizing on the big mistakes of the defender, which is finding it impossible to find a groove.

Sailing World

AC34: Race 5 Foil Tack

The move that killed Race 5 for Oracle Team USA. A misfired foiling tack at Mark 2 was the beginning of the end of their lead.ACEA/Ricardo Pinto

"Foiling tack!" called Oracle Team USA's tactician John Kostecki as Oracle's big, black 17 sped toward the first leeward gate with a comfortable lead in Race 5 of America's Cup 34. As he said it, armchair tacticians and fans of the American team were probably asking the obvious: "Why would you give up your lead, especially with a high-risk maneuver you have not perfected?"

It was this decisive and surprising move of the day that instantly gutted their lead and turned control of the race over to Emirates Team New Zealand. Was it the wrong move? Well, not really. It may be the only move they have left in their arsenal. Hampered by inferior upwind speed and an inability to tack from speed to speed, Oracle can not effectively engage with Emirates Team New Zealand. Their only strategy, as Kostecki alluded to after winning Race 4, is to sail around the racecourse as fast as possible.

What he means is that the only way Oracle can out-sail the New Zealanders is to not sail against them, and instead, sail around the track as fast as possible, using every little physical advantage they can—current and geographic windshifts.

Kostecki wanted the immediate gain of the Alcatraz Cone. If they’d gotten it they could have had that much more of a cushion to sail the course as they wish. Unfortunately, as everyone witnessed, the team’s foiling tack around the mark did not work. They went into the turn slower than they needed, the port hull touched down, and their speed plummeted. Their inability to execute a maneuver under pressure failed them once again.

As they sailed toward the Alcatraz Cone with the Kiwis on their hip they couldn’t find a mode that worked, as Kostecki could be heard from the onboard audio feed saying, “We’re a lot lower than them.”

By the time they approached the outside boundary, ETNZ was coming at them with pace, and Oracle’s right-hand advantage was suddenly in jeopardy. As soon as skipper Dean Barker footed off and passed behind he was on his way to owning the outer boundary and the starboard advantage. The race was all theirs.

“The cone was very favored,” said ETNZ tactician Ray Davies. “It’s a race to get in there. We were going to tack early anyway. It gave us a little opportunity, but the boat is seriously going well upwind so that makes it easier for me.”

From there, the tailspin continued onboard 17. Their tacks were no better as they split for clear air, their heads were in the boat, and the wheels were falling off. Onboard, Spithill said, "Accelerate, we're too slow."

After the second tack of the beat, someone complained that he had no lift in the board through the tacks, to which Spithill responded, “We’ve got to get this sorted guys . . . we have to get it going.”

Before the next tack Slingsby could be heard saying, “I need more time.” [He later admitted to not being ready.]

As the leg continued, with Emirates Team New Zealand sailing the course freely, the separation grew to 300 meters and onward, and once the New Zealanders rounded the top mark and tore down the run at more than 40 knots it was done.

It was a gutting race for Oracle Team USA, and the television feed from onboard the boat portrayed a dark mood as they sailed upwind for the start of the second race. Then, moments before the start of Race 6, Oracle pulled the plug, choosing to use their “postponement card.” Each competitor is allowed one for the entire regatta.

Spithill later said it was a team decision to stop and refocus. He was then pulled off the boat and joined CEO Russell Coutts inside the team’s tender for a private one-on-one.

“We felt we needed to regroup and look at the boat,” said Spithill in the post-race press conference. “It’s obvious we need to make changes. There was a real chance we were not going to win the second race. The card is there for your benefit. If you’re not comfortable in your equipment then you play the card. If you don’t think you can win the race you can play the card. It’s a decision we’ll have to live with.”

After pulling out they went “training” as the Kiwis celebrated another rock solid win—although from their reaction to Oracle’s postponement card you could tell they were more than ready to throw another blow to the struggling defender.

“We’ve definitely got them where we want them,” said ETNZ tactician Ray Davies after the day’s post-race press conference. He says his competitor’s faults are all on the table: the Americans are slower upwind and still can’t maneuver their boat effectively. “There’s still plenty they can do to improve, maybe change out their foils, for example,” he says, “but it’s getting a lot tougher for them.”

Spithill, a boxer himself, knows he’s against the ropes. “They’re impressive upwind, but we can win races,” he says. “We’ve won a race. We’ve rounded that mark with them behind us. We just need to be smart with how we go about it. The tack itself [referring to the Mark 2 foiling tack] was terrible, technically. So we have to go away and learn from it. That’s why we played the card. It was obvious we needed to regroup and look at the video and get out there tomorrow and try to improve.”

Spithill said the team is not flustered, and when asked whether there would be crew changes for Thursday’s Races 6 and 7, specifically Kostecki, who’s borne the brunt of tactical miscues, he said, “I can’t guarantee anything. I can’t guarantee I’ll be on there. We need some time to really assess our program and the boat and get it headed in the other direction. Fortunately we have some time and more races ahead. It’s all on the table; appendage changes, sail changes, crew changes…all sorts of things. We’ll go back and really look at everything.”

Is that Ben Ainslie warming up in the bullpen?

Race 5 Performance Data

  • Course: 5 Legs/10.27 nautical miles
  • Elapsed Time: ETNZ – 22:45, OTUSA – 23:50
  • Delta: ETNZ +1:05
  • Total distance sailed: ETNZ – 11.4 NM, OTUSA – 11.5 NM
  • Average Speed: ETNZ – 30.21 knots (35 mph), OTUSA – 29.17 knots (33 mph)
  • Top Speed: ETNZ – 46.94 knots (54 mph), OTUSA – 44.93 knots (52 mph)
  • Windspeed: Average – 20 knots, Peak – 24.1 knots