SAN FRANCISCO — The preliminary races that led up to the America’s Cup finals (which began this week) were so lopsided that many questioned whether the 34th America’s Cup would be a yawner.
That speculation ended on Saturday as Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA began sailing against one another in a high-stakes drama that is unlike anything seen previously on the high seas.
CNN Sports correspondent and double Olympic sailing gold medalist Shirley Robertson spoke to the skepticisms that media had voiced of claims by the teams and race organizers that America’s Cup would be close and exciting, by declaring to the battling skippers at the first post-race press conference, “It was very special, today. It was mind blowing. We finally believe you.” What Robertson saw, as did a growing audience of spectators – which is setting attendance records — was that America’s Cup has become an entertaining spectacle.
In the first five races, there were lead changes, tense crossing situations that verged on near collisions and erratic flying and diving maneuvers by the AC72s – the extreme, wing-sailed, hydrofoiled catamarans chosen for this America’s Cup which ETNZ Wing Trimmer, Glenn Ashby described as, “$10 million, carbon-fiber missiles.”
Spectators groaned, cheered and gasped as the lead changed or as the 7-ton boats flew out of the water seemingly out of control. San Francisco Bay was a winner, as well, demonstrating why it is considered to be one of the most challenging and exhilarating places to sail. Winds varied between 12 and 18 knots — ideal conditions for sailing, with flood tides moving the boats into tacking duels close to shore close to tens of thousands of cheering spectators.
Jimmy Spithill, skipper of the American boat, said his crew heard the shouts of encouragement and saw the displays of American flags on shore, saying it encouraged them. He urged more Americans to come out, show the flag and help “keep the Cup on San Francisco Bay.”
However, most of the cheering, this past week, was by Kiwi fans who watched Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) win its first three races before finally trailing Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) in the fourth. Of the early American losses, renowned yachtsman, Brad Butterworth said, “They got a thumping, really.”
By Tuesday, the score was four wins for ETNZ to one for OTUSA, with the Americans pulling their sole postponement card before race 6 to “regroup.” Though, it actually was four wins to minus one for the Americans, because OTUSA had been penalized two points, the previous week, due to a rules violation it incurred during preliminary races, last year. That has put the American defense in a hole having to win 11 of 17 possible races, to the Kiwi’s 9 of 17.
USA 17, the American boat, may need all 17 races to retain the Cup, considering how well New Zealand skipper Dean Barker is sailing ETNZ. The restrained Barker’s decisions, boat handling and his boat’s crew work were nearly flawless. The New Zealand boat has proven to be a bit faster and maneuverable upwind. “With this boat, it’s full throttle all the way,” said Spithill. Though the real difference between boats is how well each crew sails. Bottom line: the Americans haven’t been sailing as well as the Kiwis.
One reason is that the Kiwis have been competing in real races since July, whereas OTUSA has only competed in matches against a training partner. That was evident this week, as OTUSA’s “distance sailed” was greater than ETNZ’s, meaning the U.S. boat was not as efficient getting to the next mark, losing time in four of the five races. Spithill said it was “little mistakes” by OTUSA and better tacking (turning when heading up wind) by ETNZ that made the difference.
Of the two skippers, Spithill proved to be the more aggressive. Though, Barker smirked at a reporter’s suggestion that Spithill was more aggressive than he was. The evidence was that, in all the starts, Spithill was the skipper placing his boat in favored positions in order to get the Kiwis to foul him and be slowed by an enforced penalty. Spithill’s aggressive sailing failed to pay off until the fourth race when he forced a foul and it was disastrous in the sixth race when, leading, he attempted a foiling tack at the leeward mark, allowing the Kiwis to catch up and pass him.
There is little love lost between these two competitors. At a post race press conference, Spithill described Barker as having gotten into the sport because of privilege (evoking an expressionless response from Barker), while, in contrast, Spithill described himself as always having to fight for what he wanted. What U.S. sailing needs right now is a fighter, or by the end of the week, the auld cup could be heading down under.
If the high drama being played out on San Francisco Bay has proved anything so far, it is that AC34 is no yawner.