SAN FRANCISCO — “Pour Or-ahk-leh: Eep, eep, eep. Ooh ay! Eep, eep, eep. Ooh ay!” Swissman Andre Di Biase cheered from shore as Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) headed out to defend America’s Cup, yesterday morning.
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Cheers of “For Oracle: Hip, hip, hip. Hooray!,” even in French, were not enough to keep challenger Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) from sustaining a commanding lead over OTUSA in the 34th America’s Cup (AC34), being sailed on San Francisco Bay.
In three races sailed this past weekend, OTUSA won two and ETNZ one. However, each victory moves ETNZ ever so closer to winning the cup. Presently, the Kiwis have only to win two races and the Americans eight, to take home the America’s Cup.
The most dramatic moment of the regatta occurred Saturday when the American and Kiwi boats were dead even, sailing upwind. While tacking (changing directions) ETNZ’s crew failed to provide sufficient hydraulic pressure to the boat’s 130-foot-tall wing sail. That caused the wing to act more like a wall than a wing, tipping the boat dangerously up onto its leeward hull as frantic crewmen yelled, “Hydro! Hydro!”
Kiwi fans gasped “Oh no!” from shore as the boat leaned perilously for one long, breathtaking moment before crashing back onto both hulls, harmlessly. Later, ETNZ skipper Dean Barker said only a half a degree more and his boat would have capsized, probably destroying its wing and providing room for OTUSA to get back in the race.
As it stands now, the America’s Cup could be decided tomorrow (Tuesday). All that might prevent the Auld Cup from heading down under — at this point in the regatta — would be for the Kiwis to capsize.
What has put the American boat so far behind, is a maelstrom they created by being penalized two points by an international jury for illegal changes OTUSA made last year during the AC45 World Series, a set of preliminary races sailed on 45-foot catamarans.
That meant OTUSA began the regatta down two races, having to win 11 of 17 races to the Kiwi’s 9 of 17. Until this past weekend, Kiwi skipper Dean Barker and tactician Ray Davies have sailed flawlessly and faster upwind than Oracle. By the third day of sailing, the Americans were behind four to minus one and in desperate need of change.
OTUSA responded by replacing San Francisco tactician, John Kostecki, with a British knight, five-time Olympic medalist, Ben Ainsley. They also modified the American boat to sail faster upwind, going so far as to remove its bow sprit, meaning that OTUSA will be unable to fly its “Code Zero” a massive genniker used in light air, should that be necessary.
The result is that the two boats are now near equals in performance and seamanship. In fact, the American boat, on some legs, is slightly faster. Yesterday’s racing was “sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat” thrilling, with four lead changes on one upwind leg, causing Barker to quip, “If you didn’t enjoy today’s racing, you should probably watch another sport.”
In the final analysis, changes made to the American boat were not too little, but they likely have come too late.