Penalties. Unforced errors. Multiple lead changes. And an absolutely necessary victory from the defending syndicate Oracle Team USA. The first day of the second weekend of America’s Cup racing had a little bit of everything. And when the salt spray had settled, Emirates Team New Zealand, by virtue of a victory in the day’s first of two races, maintained a 4-1 lead over the American boat in the 35th edition of the America’s Cup. But for the first time in the regatta, the Kiwi’s no longer looked invincible, and the eventual outcome was no longer a forgone conclusion.
Last weekend, the New Zealander’s shocked Oracle by winning all four races to take a commanding 3-0 lead (just to confuse everyone, the Kiwi’s had started the event at a negative-one deficit since Oracle carried a point forward from the Louis Vuitton Challenger’s Series). In both boat speed and tactics, the Kiwi’s were clearly the superior boat. The American’s looked lost at sea.
The big question was: With five days between races, would Oracle Team USA have enough time to make the necessary changes to get back in the boat race? Before the racing began on Saturday, Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said they’d indeed made significant alterations in the set-up of the boat. Would they be enough?
At the outset of the day’s first race, conducted on Bermuda’s Great Sound in 11 knots of breeze, nothing Oracle had changed made a difference, as the American boat was over the starting line a split second early and Emirates Team New Zealand accepted the gift to take an early lead. Oracle did roar back to jibe ahead of the Kiwi’s to take the lead in the race, but the next time the two boats converged, Oracle was penalized for failing to stay clear of the New Zealand boat. The second self-inflicted wound was simply too much to overcome, as the Kiwi’s extended on every subsequent leg to win by a commanding 2:04.
Going into the sixth race of the series, then, Emirates Team New Zealand held a 4-0 lead. It was clearly a must-win situation for Oracle Team USA.
In the best race of the regatta, with the wind still hovering at 11 knots, Oracle showed that the changes they’d made were indeed significant. The American boat took the start and held on for the first three of seven legs, effectively maintaining control of the New Zealanders in classic match-racing form. But they weren’t flawless, allowing Emirates Team New Zealand to slip ahead at the fourth mark by sailing a slightly longer distance on the downwind leg with an additional jibe. For once, however, their mistake wasn’t fatal, as Oracle Team USA found better breeze on the left-hand side of the course to recapture the lead. Once they regained it, they did not relinquish it, holding off the Kiwi’s to record their first win of the event.
At the post-race press conference, both skippers were in fine form. As for losing the first race of the series, Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Peter Burling said, “It was great to see a little bit of fight out of these boys,” a comment that was sure to be repeated in the Oracle camp. And finding a little bit of gamesmanship in his own right, Oracle’s Spithill seemed supremely confident for a man still facing a 3-race deficit in the regatta. “We’re going back on the water (after this press conference) to try something else to change,” he said. “The important thing is the boat is faster. And we think there’s more speed in the tank.”
Time will tell. By virtue of today’s victory, Oracle Team USA has extended the racing into at least Monday, when the forecast calls for significantly better breeze. In the meantime, two more races are scheduled for Sunday. The game is definitely on.