America's Cup: Oracle's leaked wind request hides story behind the story

By Paul Lewis, in San Francisco

Team NZ seem best in the 16-18 knot range, though re-moding for various conditions is provoking a race between the shore crews every bit as fierce as that on the water. Photo / Getty Images
Team NZ seem best in the 16-18 knot range, though re-moding for various conditions is provoking a race between the shore crews every bit as fierce as that on the water. Photo / Getty Images

Team New Zealand declined Oracle Team USA's request to agree to increasing the wind limits. Of course, they did; Oracle didn't really want them to agree.

In the murky world of America's Cup PR stunts and posturing, things are often not what they seem.

Oracle wrote to ask for Emirates Team NZ's support in a move to have the America's Cup wind limit shifted upwards by one knot from 23 to 24. Both teams must agree before such a change can be made.

But that's not the real issue here.

Oracle are capitalising on the public disbelief that a yacht race can be called off for too much wind when both yachts are actually racing in it. That goes back to Sunday when Race 9 was ditched because the wind rose above the regatta's agreed limits.

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When a race is underway, a five-minute rolling average is taken for the wind speed and, if it exceeds the limit, the race is called off. That's unless the yachts have already completed leg 3, the upwind leg. Then they can finish.

But that's not the real issue either.

Oracle's request to Team NZ - which they predictably turned down - was leaked to friendly journalists and others they knew would get it out to the internet and the blogosphere. Nothing strange about that; it's accepted PR practice. But accepted practice usually means waiting until Team NZ have had a chance to reply.

This isn't really about mending the wind limits (Oracle also said they wanted to remove the rule which stops the race being called off once it has started); it's about casting Team NZ as the bad guys and Oracle as the defenders who want to bring racing to the public, obscuring the cheating saga.

People who are just now tuning into the excitement of the America's Cup (and who didn't follow the sailing through the excruciating changes made to this regatta after the Artemis capsize in May and the death of crewman Andrew Simpson) may not realise the background - that the wind limits were set to protect the teams from a similar occurrence.

At the time, Team NZ were miffed because they had prepared their boat to be safe and fast in the upper range of the original limits, set at 33 knots. They thought the wind limits would benefit Oracle, with a boat geared for September's supposedly lighter breezes. Privately, all teams now agree that 33 knots might have been a little "out there" anyway.

Also, the development of the AC72 catamarans has been so rapid that things have changed mightily. Team NZ were happiest in high winds, Oracle in light airs. But, in a development class and especially a development class where there are so many unknowns, the boats can and must change a lot - if only to cover the advances of their competitors.

The boats are so on-the-edge and responsive to small changes that Oracle are now happiest in the strong breezes (and ebb tides that apply right now) while Team NZ seem best in the 16-18 knot range, though re-moding for various conditions is provoking a race between the shore crews every bit as fierce as that on the water.

Even Oracle design executive Dirk Kramers was against raising the limits in a media briefing yesterday: "You can argue we should revisit them and change the rules but, at this stage, it probably doesn't make sense ... keeping the game fair and safe as can be is the right thing to do."

More proof? Team NZ said privately yesterday that their re-moded boat would happily have raced in yesterday's high winds, which gusted well over the wind limits. One team member said the winner of the race would have been the yacht that didn't break down in the conditions. He said that would not have been Aotearoa.

So an Oracle request to extend the wind limits was never going to succeed. If it was a genuine attempt, it would have been negotiated behind closed doors, not leaked to the media before Team NZ had responded.

But this is the America's Cup where there is nearly always a story behind the story.

- NZ Herald

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