By Gary Jobson
September 20, 2013
How would you like to have four-time British Olympic champion, Sir Ben Ainslie, calling tactics for you in the biggest race of your life? Adding to the collective wisdom of the Team Oracle USA afterguard is another Olympic champion, Australian Tom Slingsby. The USA team (with only one American on board) took another step closer to defending the America's Cup.
They were very lucky when light winds prevented Emirates Team New Zealand from crossing the finish line, as NZL was well ahead but just missed finishing within the required 40 minutes. In the re-sail of Race 13, Ainslie's tactics were the difference. At 8-3, the score still favors New Zealand, but you get the feeling here in San Francisco that OTUSA's Australian skipper, James Spithill, along with Ainslie and their crew, are on a roll and just might pull off the biggest upset in the history of sailing. Is it destiny, or determination?
When Spithill came strutting down the promenade at Pier 27 for the post race press conference, he looked like Popeye just after eating his spinach. He knows he has the boat and team to go all the way now. New Zealand's skipper, Dean Barker, seems to be feeling the pressure. Outwardly, he remains calm and assured, but inside this event has got to be eating away at his psyche. Barker only needs one more win on a ten-mile course to take the America's Cup back to New Zealand. Just-one-more-win! Getting it will not be easy, but is certainly possible.
Oracle Team USA started this regatta in disarray. Their starts, tactics, boat handling and speed were way off the pace set by the Kiwis. Something changed. Larry Ellison got engaged. He visited the Team base at least two times, and got his giant machine in gear. The America's Cup trophy mysteriously appeared in front of the boat when the crew arrived after losing two races on Day One. The message was clear.
The 32 (or so) designers went to work for Ellison's sailing team. Spithill kept saying they could win races. The speeds of the boats became even. Ainslie was substituted in as tactician replacing American, John Kostecki. The move has proven to be a good one. Ainslie is getting better with every race. Ainslie knows how to win. I witnessed his relentless pursuit for victory at the Olympic Games in Weymouth last summer. Ainslie had to beat Denmark's Jonas Hogh-Christensen in the final medal race to earn his record setting 4th Gold medal (Ainslie also won a silver medal in the Olympics at the age of 19 in 1996). Ainslie had been trailing throughout the Games last summer. It took a herculean effort for him to dig out of a deep hole, and then win it all by coming from behind to beat Hogh-Christensen in the final race.
On board USA 17, and around the waterfront, Ainslie looks like he is having a good time. Being focused yet relaxed in the heat of battle is a good combination. Racing will continue with no lay days until one boat wins nine races. OTUSA still has to win six more in a row. New Zealand only needs one. Can they do it?
The Kiwis realize their boat is just about the same speed as USA 17. Both crews are handling the boats efficiently during maneuvers. In a long series like this one the pressure builds. The press, fans, supporters and even teammates get impatient. While the races are short, the nature of the Cup can take awhile to conclude. In 2003 it took Alinghi 16 days to defeat New Zealand. In 1983 Australia II finally defeated Liberty 4-3 after 13 days. Tomorrow's race will be Day 14. A review of Race 13 is in order.
In the re-sailed race that counted, Dean Barker brilliantly won the start. He had lost three starts in a row to Spithill. The Kiwis had a five-length lead half way down Leg Two. Somehow, New Zealand's tactician, Ray Davies, allowed his boat to get in a position where the disturbed wind off the USA 17 wing slowed NZL down. Ainslie saw an opening and pounced. When the boats converged, USA 17 was on starboard; NZL was at risk on port. Just before a potential collision, Spithill sharply altered course and protested. The umpires ruled in favor of USA 17. The penalty went away because NZL was already well behind. At the time I thought NZL was clear, but a review of the AC LiveLine graphics, in slow motion, showed that the umpires made the correct call. Approaching the leeward gate, Ainslie called to jibe and switch from rounding the left gate to the right gate. Davies decided to make two costly jibes at slow speed to take the left gate. NZL was well back after that unfortunate move.
The Kiwis had one possible opening halfway up Leg Three. In the middle of the course USA tacked on NZL. Davies could have called for a tack to get back over to the south side of the course. The wind was shifting to the left, which favored the city side. There was also a stronger ebb current along the shore line. Davies elected to use boat speed to get clear. The wind did shift to the left, and USA 17 gained. Davies’ one opportunity slipped away. While Ainslie constantly consults with Tom Slingsby about tactics, Davies is the lone tactician on his boat. Today he could have used a little help. To his credit, Dean Barker concentrates on steering and never second-guesses Davies. With the speeds of both AC 72s so even, after the start Davies is the man that has to make the correct calls.
Missing on ETNZ today was their team leader, Grant Dalton. He might not agree with me, but his presence sure seems to help. Just saying, Grant!
As an aside, the wind limits are a big issue here. The 23-knot wind limit (adjusted for current) was set in the interest of safety. OTUSA would like to raise the limit. New Zealand doesn't think the rules should be changed in the middle of the game. I agree with New Zealand on this point. The sailing instructions say races can be started in five knots of wind, but the boats can't sail around the five-leg, ten-mile course in under 40 minutes. Either the minimum wind speed should go up, or the time limit should be extended to 50 minutes. (New Zealand missed finishing by about 2 minutes today). During the 12-Meter era the time limit was 4.5 hours on a 23.4-mile course.
This America's Cup is becoming one of the biggest battles in the Cup's history. The USA is getting stronger every day. Larry Ellison is on the case. Spithill is energized. Ainslie is smooth. The American boat seems to be lucky when they need it. The Kiwis are getting nervous. All 4.4 million people in New Zealand are cheering on their team. I think many of them are here in San Francisco. They need one more race. Just one. Maybe Barker, Davies and DALTON should take a line from Spithill, and declare, "We can win races." As I asked earlier, "Is it destiny or determination?" For me it is determination. If NZL wins, the Spithill strut we saw today will look more like Y.A. Tittle on his knees in the end zone after losing a championship football game. The late, great sports announcer Jim McKay described moments like this with his famous prose: "The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat." The 34th America's Cup is sports theater at its best.
Our coverage continues on the NBC Sports Network at 4pm Eastern (1pm Pacific). Todd Harris, Ken Read and I look forward to calling these epic races, and we hope you will be watching right along with us.
Photos courtesy of photographer Steven Tsuchiya.