Yachting: Lessons ignored at Oracle's peril

By Paul Lewis

Learning from mistakes is a well-known mantra and Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill often talks about how top sport is really about overcoming adversity.

But Oracle do not seem to have taken on board the lessons of the past and how their adversity was replaced by more adversity in the 34th America's Cup - and the 32nd... and the 31st.

The American-based syndicate dropped their tactician John Kostecki after the San Francisco native committed a blunder. He was replaced by Ben Ainslie who made this difference to proceedings: none.

Ainslie is a brilliant skipper - even Spithill calls him the "best sailor in the world" - but manning the wheel of the AC72s is different from being a tactician. That sailor calls the tactical moves, watches for wind shifts, keeps an eye on the opposition and plots a course through San Francisco's tides and currents. He also lends a hand on the grinders, helping to power the boat through the hydraulics.

Ainslie's unfamiliarity with the role showed in Races 6 and 7. He performed well enough for the most part but Oracle called a split in Race 6 which effectively sealed their fate; such a call is usually the province of the tactician.

So Oracle had made a change but still made a mistake.

They also had to deal with the main problem - that the boat is clearly slower upwind than Team New Zealand's; so much so that it looks a decisive difference.

Observers felt the move to replace Kostecki with Ainslie came from billionaire boss Larry Ellison and not from the sailing team, though Spithill maintained it was his decision and that Kostecki had taken it well.

Oracle have a history of making such personnel changes and - even more alarmingly - not benefitting from them.

In the team's first America's Cup, in Auckland in 2003, changes ruled. In 2001, skipper Paul Cayard was put on shore leave so New Zealand's Chris Dickson could take over. A year later, Dickson was also sent on shore leave, the team unhappy with his intense ways and blow-ups at the crew.

Peter Holmberg took over as skipper until he was outdone by Russell Coutts, then skippering Alinghi's boat. Ellison, who had taken the helm in some races, thought Oracle had a faster boat but, after one botched race, Ellison (this from his book) said: "What a fiasco. Oh, my God, this is f****** unbelievable. We have no chance with this afterguard. How did this team get here?"

They finished third of nine challengers in the Louis Vuitton, making it to the semifinals. Ellison had to make changes. Holmberg was out, Dickson back in. The team weren't happy but Ellison insisted. They won the semifinal against OneWorld 4-0 but lost 1-5 to Alinghi in the Louis Vuitton final.

In 2007, Oracle again had a fast boat but crew troubles struck once more. They suffered an embarrassing loss to Team China, an extremely rookie syndicate and crew.

Helmsman Gavin Brady went. Dickson took over the wheel. Kostecki went - any of this sound familiar? - and Bertrand Pace came on board. As the cards began to fall against Oracle (they were in the process of being beaten by Luna Rossa in the Louis Vuitton final), Ellison made another change.

Dickson was dropped and Danish match racer Sten Mohr took the helm for the final race. They lost.

Game over.

- Herald on Sunday

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