America's Cup: Down to the wire
Anyone following me on Twitter will know that I am very passionate when it comes to sailing, the America’s Cup, and the challenging team Emirates Team New Zealand.
Which is why these past few days have been so agonising, not just for me but for a nation of four million people back home, who are all waiting for just one more win on the waters of San Francisco Bay.
The situation is this.
Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) is challenging for international sport’s oldest prize, currently held by the defenders Oracle Team USA.
ETNZ looked formidable from the start of the America’s Cup finals, stretching out to an 8-1 lead to go to match point.
To be fair – had it not been for a two-point penalty imposed on Oracle before the series began – the score should have been 8-3. But even then the Kiwis would still have been heavily favoured to win.
And then the rot set in.
Oracle started winning races, convincingly. And at the time of writing, the scorecard reads 8-6. Oracle have won five in a row. ETNZ still needs one win on the water to take the Cup back to New Zealand. But they just can’t manage it.
"We're very upbeat, we know we can do this if we sail well," says ETNZ’s matter-of fact skipper Dean Barker.
But even he must have his doubts right now.
What IS going on?
Peaking at the right time
Oracle has two boats and has been sailing them against each other for months in preparation for the Cup. They didn’t have a defender’s series like the challengers did, so were arguably not match-hardened.
That showed when the finals began and ETNZ looked so dramatically faster and slicker on the water.
But Oracle have kept making modifications. Fine-tuning their boat, and producing cumulative gains in boat speed. Their crew work has gotten better. They are in control of their boat and it is responding to what they want.
Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s Australian skipper, doesn’t underplay the effect on his team:
"The changes to the boat are a big deal. They're a big deal in terms of actual performance that you see physically but also mentally for the crew, because now the crew can see that the boat is up to it and they believe they can do it and the boat can do it."
So it’s not that ETNZ have suddenly gotten bad. Oracle’s just really improved.
A British knight
Much has been made of the late addition of British Olympic sailor Sir Ben Ainslie to the Oracle team.
Personally I thought it was a desperate move – a ‘hail Mary’ as they’d call it in the United States. Ainslie would be sailing out-of-position as tactician, and would replace a man (John Kostecki) who was regarded as the best sailor there’s ever been on San Francisco Bay.
Ainslie though has proved them wrong. He’s not been the lynchpin, but he’s added a level of calmness and thoughtfulness to the back of the bot.
The communication between him, Spithill, and strategist Tom Slingsby is impressive. They’re making the right decisions, picking the right wind shifts, and winning races as a result.
Apart from on the scorecard, this is not a tangible thing. And again it’s something I never placed much emphasis on.
There’s enough randomness in sailing – wind shifts, gear breakages – for a race to go either way. And with ETNZ needing just one win, the law of averages is still in their favour.
But imagine getting thrashed day after day, and then suddenly winning five in a row.
It’s totally against the odds. It creates belief amongst the winners, and potentially a mental block for the losers. Every time the two boats line up, on that same stretch of water, they know how exactly how it’s been playing out and who’s had the advantage.
The pressure on ETNZ must be enormous, even if the famously laid-back Kiwi attitude suggests otherwise.
Win the start, win the race
As I said, sailing can be a very random sport. For example ETNZ were looking in a strong position in an earlier race, when one piece of gear failed to do its job and the boat almost capsized. That race was lost at that very moment.
But there’s also a lot to be said for being first over the start line, and at speed.
That’s something Oracle’s doing very well – picking the right part of the start line, accelerating over it at an incredible pace, and aggressively pushing ETNZ out of the way at times.
Paul Lewis, a journalist for the New Zealand Herald, believes ETNZ isn’t doing anything inherently wrong:
"There was nothing wrong with the start - it was all about boat speed. Oracle are faster on that first reaching mark off the line; they have better acceleration."
And while Oracle may only lead by 3-5 seconds at the first mark after that start, it’s enough to start dictating play.
Barring a major change in conditions or a gear failure, the boat in front can quite easily stay there. Especially Oracle, which is now looking on average to be a consistently faster boat.
I could go on for hours about all the different factors, physical and mental, which are turning this into a magnificent sporting competition.
But I won’t.
In fact – and this is rare for a journalist – I’m hoping that what you’ve just read will be out-of-date very soon.
That the law of averages will kick in, and that Emirates Team New Zealand will find that last elusive win.
If not, and Oracle Team USA go on to retain the America’s Cup, there will be a pall over New Zealand.
But I’m sure an admiration too – albeit grudgingly – for what would be one of the all-time great sporting comebacks.