America’s Cup 34: An Impressive Kiwi Kick-Off

Good weather and huge crowds greeted opening day of the 34th America's Cup.

America's Cup

© ACEA / PHOTO ABNER KINGMAN

After endless rounds of posturing, bickering, protests, jury rulings, boat development, sea trials, tragedy, and just about every other human condition, the 34th running of the America’s Cup is finally underway. And the biggest surprise of all?

So far, it’s been fantastic.

On a weekend that showcased the natural amphitheater that is San Francisco Bay—and on a racecourse that showed why New Zealand remains the preeminent sailing nation on the planet—the talented crew aboard the America’s Cup challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand, made an emphatic statement by taking three of four races against Oracle Team USA to post a solid lead in the best of 17 race series.

While syndicate chief Larry Ellison’s Oracle crew looks to be in trouble in their first defense of the Auld Mug, skipper Jimmy Spithill and his squad salvaged what appeared to be heading for a Lost Weekend by winning the fourth and final race on Sunday after three consecutive losses. Still, it remains to be seen if Oracle has truly gained momentum or if its lone victory was an aberration against a Kiwi boat that for the most part was sailed exquisitely.

And because Oracle was docked two points before racing began for a rules infraction in the America’s Cup World Series—the lead-up to these latest Cup finals—the American team remains in a deep deficit. Now, New Zealand needs just six more wins to bring the Cup back to Auckland, while Oracle Team USA still requires ten victories.

Yes, it's complicated. So, for now, we'll stick to a weekend wrap-up. (For full reports on the lead-up to the Cup, and the race schedule, visit the event's website: www.americascup.com).

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce could not have dialed up better summer weather for the opening day of the regatta, on Saturday, September 7. Though the forecast called for light and variable winds, a beautiful 12-14 knot southerly was coursing up the bay by the time the starting gun sounded at 1315. From the event’s headquarters at America’s Cup Park, on Piers 27/28, to the stadium seating at the America’s Cup Village on Marina Green, to the beach at Crissy Field, a stone’s throw from the St. Francis Yacht Club, tens of thousands of spectators lined every vantage point along the waterfront. Everyone wondered, if they built it, would the crowds come? On Opening Weekend, they did, and in force.

And everyone was treated to a dazzling spectacle of sailing, at long last. The stars of the show, even more than the talented New Zealand crew, were the AC 72 catamarans, $10 million carbon rockets with tall wing sails that fly on foils and can easily knock off speeds of 40-knots on a power reach. In the history of sailing, there has never been a boat that rivals them. And despite everyone’s fears that they would be poor vessels for boat-on-boat match racing, the format for the America’s Cup, the cats were incredibly even on almost all points of sail.

The difference, at least on Day 1, were the skills of the men on Emirates Team New Zealand.

The racing proved fast—for this Cup, the contests last about half an hour—and competitive. It’s hard to describe the almost visceral sensation of seeing an AC 72 go foil-borne for the first time. Upwind, they go 25 knots. Off the breeze, there were plenty of bursts over 40. The boats are incredibly graceful feats of engineering, and they are sailed expertly by pro sailors who’ve ramped up the class in stunningly short time. They are a spectacle, and they are competitive, and even the folks along the waterfront who’d never watched a sailboat race before were also duly impressed.

In the opening race, in fact, there was not one but two lead changes—the Kiwis took the early lead, lost it to Oracle, then regained it—a rare occurrence in Cup racing. The second race on Saturday, another Kiwi bullet, was more one-sided. At the end of the day, the New Zealanders were up 2-nil.

Sunday was a more typical San Francisco day, with a bowlful of fog consuming much of the lower bay (you could not see the Golden Gate Bridge from the shore-side viewing areas), and chillier temperatures, in the lower 60s. It was also windier, with breeze topping off in the low 20-knot range. But racing got off on time, and though Oracle Team USA took the early lead in the first of the day’s two races, the Kiwis stormed back in yet another contest with a lead change to record their third win in a row. Finally, in Race 4, Ellison’s charges sailed a perfect race in a wire-to-wire victory. But it could be telling that, even with a flawless performance, their margin of victory over the Kiwis was a mere 8 seconds. And now that the New Zealanders have endured a figurative punch in the nose, they may come back angrier and more motivated. If that’s the case, watch out.

But all that remains to be seen.

When Larry Ellison won the Cup, he and his syndicate chief, New Zealand Cup veteran Russell Coutts, promised to make big changes to the event. Ever since, there seemed to be one hiccup after another. On one weekend, at least, all the miscues and errors were forgiven.

The show they put on for the opening of the San Francisco Cup defense was spectacular. For two days, anyway, the promise was fulfilled.

Herb McCormick is Cruising World's senior editor.