On to the 34th America's Cup Defense
CW editor-at-large Gary Jobson offers up some insight into the upcoming races between AC defender Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand.
In the one unofficial scrimmage between NZL and USA two weeks ago the speeds seemed to be about even on a downwind leg. During one simultaneous jibe NZL appeared to gain more than a length. The defending team has had good in-house racing. Spithill has the advantage of sailing with the varsity crew, and is always on the newer boat. He wins many of the races, but trial horse skipper Sir Ben Ainslie has won his share, and always pushes hard. These races have helped the USA improve. New Zealand looks more polished while maneuvering than the American boats. In this area I give the Kiwis the edge. However, their advantage will diminish as the races progress. The Cup final is a best of 17 series. Both teams will learn with each race.
Every day on San Francisco Bay the best tactical choices will change depending on the current and wind strength. I give Oracle the edge here. On board is tactical wizard, John Kostecki, who grew up racing on San Francisco Bay. He rarely makes a bad call. New Zealand's tactician, Ray Davies, is a cool hand. Davies and Barker grew up together at the same yacht club, and are close friends. That will help when things get tight. And, they will. Like Kostecki, Davies also makes few mistakes but he did not grow up in these waters. New Zealand does have an excellent "local knowledge" coach in American Dee Smith, who also grew up racing here. Smith will certainly give Davies all the correct trends, but he is not on the boat like Kostecki.
Only one leg of the 10-mile course will be to windward. I hear over and over from various experts that the USA has a slight edge over New Zealand when sailing to windward. Again, no one really knows, but I have witnessed both boats foiling upwind without losing very much windward distance. At times the boats hit 30 knots! Yep, that is sailing upwind. I haven't seen it often. My guess is that upwind foiling will be something that will be rolled out during the Cup. In fact, the teams will likely have many secret speed elements that we won't see until the racing starts.
Both teams have very strong designers. Both design groups number over 30 engineers and naval architects and probably have lengthy lists of things they would like to test, but time is running out. Maximizing time on the water before the cup will be important. The designers will be able to make adjustments during the match. As mentioned, every race will be a learning experience. Making improvements to various design elements will be an important part of this regatta. But we will not know what is happening in the background. The result of this work will only be apparent during the races.
The wind limit for the America's Cup goes up to 23 knots (from 21 for the LVC), which will be adjusted for the current. In a flood tide of 2 knots the wind limit is 25 and in an ebb tide of 2 knots the wind limit drops to 21. Oracle has spent most of their time training when the wind is under the limit. New Zealand goes out when the wind is well above. Against, Luna Rossa the Kiwis seemed to be faster when the wind was light. It is possible that one boat will have an edge in one wind condition and not another. If this happens, the strength of the wind could be the deciding factor.
On our broadcasts I have called the AC 72s, '"fast, scary, and fragile." After watching 12 challenger races, and 14 defender practice races I am adding a word to my description...graceful. An AC 72 sailing at 47 knots while making wide turns at a turning mark is a thing of beauty.
Like any sporting event the winner is often the one who wants it more. New Zealand is a country of only 4.5 million people. This is a smaller population than my home state of Maryland. ORACLE TEAM USA's syndicate head, Larry Ellison wants to win badly. It is in his DNA. Let there be no doubt that the Kiwis are also highly motivated. They know what it’s like to have the Cup in their home waters. ETNZ is made up of 9 New Zealand sailors and two Australians (who live in New Zealand). Ellison's crew is a multi-national group from the USA, Holland, Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Antigua (depending on the starting line up). The difference in the past was the man who first won it for New Zealand and later successfully defended it. Sir Russell Coutts, is the man in charge of ORACLE TEAM USA. You can imagine how the Kiwis would like to defeat their former hero. Likewise, Coutts, would like to continue his undefeated winning streak in the America's Cup. Coutts has won four America's Cups, and has yet to lose a single race.
The races will only last 30 minutes or less. The speeds of these machines may never be seen again in the America's Cup. Both teams expect they can, and will, win. The contest will go back and forth. Unlike the Super Bowl that is over in 3 hours, the America's Cup will likely extend for two weeks. New Zealand seems to have more fans around the waterfront of San Francisco, but in the end I think ORACLE TEAM USA will defend...barely.