SAN FRANCISCO — America’s Cup remains in America following Oracle Team USA’s defeat of Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), in a winner-take-all final race held Wednesday on San Francisco Bay.
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Since Sept. 18, the Auld Mug was one race from heading to New Zealand. Because of penalties imposed on the American boat for infractions incurred last year during preliminary races, Oracle had to win 11 races, the Kiwis nine.
After the first week of the regatta, Oracle trailed the Kiwis who had shown their boat to be better sailed and faster. Once ETNZ reached 8 wins, any race won by them thereafter would send the cup down under, but then the Americans began winning a string of races that many are now calling, “the greatest comeback ever, in sport.”
What made the difference was that the American team found ways to make their boat go faster upwind than the Kiwis could. Following the race, OTUSA owner Larry Ellison said they’d discovered that VMG (velocity made good – a measurement of how fast a boat is progressing toward the next mark) improved when their boat’s bow was down (not pointing as high as it could toward the next mark).
That allowed the US boat to sail 30 to 32 knots upwind and onto its hydrofoils, which the Kiwis were unable to match. Kiwi skipper Dean Barker – whose suntanned, rosey-cheeked face had become increasingly drawn over the 19-race ordeal – said his realization that he might be outmatched occurred the day before the final when, “after the second leg, we came around the bottom mark and saw Oracle lead off into the distance.”
At one point in that race, Oracle led by over 1,000 meters.
Another advantage Oracle had was the unsinkable confidence of its 35-year-old skipper, Jimmy Spithill. A self-described “fighter,” Spithill regularly told anyone who would listen that he would “never give up.”
He described a can-do atmosphere at OTUSA’s base, embodied by, Kenny Fowler, one of the youngest members of the team who’d injured a vertebre in training. Fowler would inspire the team each morning with irrepressible pep talks, relieving the pressure and keeping the team from focusing on the impossibly difficult mountain they had to climb.
In contrast, the pressure on ETNZ skipper Dean Barker visibly grew upon him with each successive loss. In press conferences, he bit his lip nervously; his body posture shifted from relaxed to nervous energy. His sea-gray eyes would look off into space as his opposite (Spithill) confidently described the changes the Oracle team was making and how the American team had come together because of the many challenges they were obliged overcome (a capsize that destroyed their first boat in training, loss of a key wing trimmer and having to win two extra races because of penalties and falling behind before finding ways to increase speed and performance).
New Zealand media began comparing ETNZ’s mounting losses to the propensity of the All Blacks – New Zealand’s national rugby team – to choke in final championships. Increasing the pressure on ETNZ was that television coverage was setting records, at home. ETNZ managing director Grant Dalton said broadcasts of America’s Cup had achieved the highest ratings in New Zealand history. One in four Kiwis were watching Barker blow the $100 million of public money that their nation of 4.4 million people had spent to win the cup and bring it back to Auckland.
In contrast, few Americans were anxious about losing the cup or watching the race. The focus in San Francisco was on Larry Ellison, the high tech magnate who leads Silicon Valley giant, Oracle. Many U.S. fans were quietly rooting for the Kiwis because they dislike the outspoken and make-it-happen-at-all-costs Ellison, who dismissed criticisms, saying that fans “are allowed to root for whomever they choose. That is their privilege.”
Ellison has not said whether he will keep America’s Cup in San Francisco or move it elsewhere, though he praised the city for delivering “the most beautiful regatta I’ve ever seen. It has changed sailing forever.” He said the decision to stay would be a group decision.
Reviews of AC34 were mixed. The sailing was spectacular and excited new interest in the sport. More than one million people came out to watch the races at free viewing areas at Piers 27/29 and at the Marina Green and at points along the San Francisco waterfront. More watched on NBC Sports, making AC34 the most-attended and watched America’s Cup in history.
Though, San Francisco hoteliers and restaurants noted only marginal increases in sales and paid admission grandstands were never full. As such, the event will probably be criticized which could affect the extent to which San Francisco goes to keep the oldest international sporting competition off its shores.
It was 162 years earlier that the yacht, America, won the first “America’s Cup” (thereafter named after the yacht), finishing eight minutes ahead of its closest rival. Queen Victoria, who was at the finish line was reported to have asked who was second. She was answered, famously, “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”
When it comes to AC34, no previous America’s Cup was as close, thrilling, dramatic or surprising. Behind eight to one, a scrappy skipper and his crew overcame impossible odds to win every remaining race and defend the cup for America. He and Oracle Team USA are, at last, first. There is no second.