Even before Oracle's gobsmacking crash in their enormous multi-million-dollar cataraman last week, yachting tongues were wagging - Emirates Team New Zealand were taking large strides towards potentially reclaiming the America's Cup next year.
It is, of course, far too early to make any predictions or point to any kind of trend in an event as complicated and as full of twists and setbacks as the America's Cup. Holders Oracle's campaign might be badly damaged right now but there is an old saying: The holder of the Cup sets the rules. Only a hopeless optimist would imagine that matters will stay as they are now, such are the political and strategic machinations within the Cup.
However, in a supreme irony, it is clear that if the Cup was to be sailed now or even early next year, Team NZ would be hot favourites. Ironic because it was not Team NZ's desire to race in the huge, 72-foot catamarans which have proven too much - financially and/or in sailing terms-for many potential challengers. That was the vision of Cup holders Oracle, billionaire owner Larry Ellison and their Cup boss Sir Russell Coutts. It wasn't Team NZ's vision but they are the ones who have realised it best so far.
The reason: design.
The first skirmishes of a conflict fought on the water but conceived on computers and debated in a jury room have been completed - and ETNZ are looking good in training and appear to be going fastest, even before Oracle's spectacular pitch-pole capsize which has severely set back their Cup preparations. Add in the fact that Team Korea, one of only four challengers, are likely to pull out of the running soon and ETNZ's chances of beating Artemis and Luna Rossa in the Louis Vuitton to earn the right to take on holders Oracle in the Cup regatta look even better. Neither have a boat in the water yet, though the Italian syndicate launch theirs next week.
ETNZ has the competition worried, even though Oracle cleaned up in the recent AC45World Series sailed in San Francisco and are perceived as having far more multi-hull experience than anyone else racing the giant AC72, 72-foot catamarans round.
San Francisco Bay next September. However, the AC45s are a completely different game to the giant AC72s, as evidenced by the crack Oracle outfit capsizing their US$10m AC72. The key to Team NZ's design advantage is hydrofoiling, or foiling for short - where the big cats lift their hulls out of the water with only their underwater foils connecting the craft to the sea. It eliminates drag so effectively that it translates into pure speed downwind as the catamaran bullets down to the bottom mark, able to gybe while travelling at 40 knots-plus, a fearsome prospect.
However, stability is no easy matter. It is all too easy to attempt to foil but to bunny-hop on the waves, like a learner driver jerks and stops a car. Crashing is more than possible. Foiling imperfectly is uncomfortable and puts enormous stresses on the multimillion-dollar boat - as Oracle and Swedish syndicate Artemis have discovered.
Artemis originally thought they had stolen a march on the other syndicates, getting round the Cup practice rules by testing the AC72 wingsail on a trimaran platform. But they damaged the wingsail during a training session. They have since fallen well behind
and have not yet managed to get their AC72 in the water. Oracle are also not foiling anywhere near as well as Team NZ-they previously broke a centreboard while testing before this week's crash - and they have not managed to match the Kiwis' consistent ability to foil quickly and stably. Right now, neither even have a boat in the water.
Having said all that, there is almost a year to go and this is the America's Cup - anything can happen, large advances can be quickly made and the intrigue and the in-fighting has barely begun.
The major reason for Team NZ's foiling skills is the dagger boards, the blades or foils which protrude into the water from the hulls, enabling the hydrofoil effect. The Team NZ design - whatever advantage the designers have managed to conjure up - is clearly helping with the lift and the stability of the boat while foiling.
Their advantage has come from lessons learned on Emirates' Team NZ's 33-foot catamarans, yachts created to see if they could point to areas where ETNZ could improve performance, particularly areas like hulls, wingsails and foils which can be permitted some variables.The tactic worked and Team NZ boss Grant Dalton says they "stumbled on" foil design to enhance performance.
If it wasn't obvious that ETNZ had the opposition rattled, it became so when the matter was recently referred to the America's Cup measuring committee, with the contention that the ETNZ dagger boards did not comply with the rules. The committee upheld Artemis' objection but the matter then went to the international jury who decreed that the rules had been written in such a way as to allow the Team NZ boards.
It's not the end of it, of course. Oracle and Artemis have the ability to design and test their own dagger boards and catch up - though time is running short; a boat has to be designed around things like foils. It is not a matter of making a slight adjustment. The Oracle crash provides another major obstacle and reports suggest they will not get back in the water until next year. However, the holders have Ellison's billions behind them and a patriotic fervour that could see all sorts of US technology and industry thrown behind Oracle's defence. Their America's Cup chief executive, Sir Russell Coutts, is also not known for a passive inclination to let theCupslip out of his fingers.
But Emirates TeamNZare playing a long game. Design has figured large in their calculations from the beginning, with a big design team aimed at gaining and maintaining an edge. One of those designers is Pete Melvin, the US multi-hull expert intricately involved with the design of the groundbreaking BOR-90, Oracle's 90-foot trimaran which defeated Alinghi's giant catamaran two years ago to lift the Cup after much vexatious courtroom wrangling.
Melvin was asked by Oracle to develop the concept for the 34th America's Cup being sailed in multi-hulls. He was subsequently hired by ETNZ and having him and a large team of designers - at 32 strong, they dwarf the ETNZ sailing team though the two teams are integrated closely-to find and keep that edge will be making Oracle and other challengers nervous.
BOR-90's wingsail was the latest great America's Cup innovation. The ETNZ dagger boards may be another such advance. The famous winged keel of 1983 made a Cup-winning difference though not all have been so successful. Bruce Farr's KZ7 'plastic fantastic' attracted praise, criticism and suspicion back in the 1987 challenge without winning the Cup and the much-vaunted 'hula' (short for hull appendage) of TeamNZ's ill-fated 2003 defence did not stop them losing the Cup to Alinghi 5-0.
However, there may be a price tag. The dagger boards may yet cost some time upwind-so there will be testing going on in all camps to decide how much and whether the downwind gains are balanced by upwind losses.
There is another twist in the tail - Italian challenger Luna Rossa. Under the terms of their co-operation agreement, ETNZ have given the Italian syndicate full access to all ETNZ design and performance data until the end of the year. That includes the dagger boards.
Luna Rossa are due to launch their AC72 catamaran on Friday and they could then make the same fast progress on foiling that ETNZ have. Unsurprisingly, Luna Rossa did not join the other teams in querying Team NZ's dagger boards with the measuring committee and the international jury.
The quid pro quo, of course, is a financial arrangement that helps Emirates Team New Zealand to build its second boat, one that will be the recipient of all the data and lessons learned from the first boat and which will hope to press design and sailing advantages further. Luna Rossa will build only one boat. However, the irony of having a Cup campaign under pressure from a co-operation partner needs no explanation.
Team NZ will back themselves to beat Luna Rossa on the water. To date, the two teams have met 10 times in the 2000 and 2007 America's Cup regattas for a 10-0 winning record to the Kiwis.