America's Cup: Wind of defeat blows Oracle's way

By Paul Lewis

Photo / Chris Cameron
Photo / Chris Cameron

It will take an accident, a breakage, a miracle of boat engineering or an act of God. Barring that, Team New Zealand will win the 34th America's Cup.

If it comes down to boat speed, Emirates Team NZ will win. If it comes down to crew work, Team New Zealand will win.

Oracle Team USA are heading back to base to beef up their boat speed - but their options remain limited.

Oracle showed up after a day of boat-boosting work and their new tactician, Ben Ainslie, but got the same old result.

The racing yesterday established a pattern Oracle will find hard to break.

They may win the start and be ahead and be a little faster downwind.

But they must dread the turn into the wind - because the wind in their faces carries the scent of defeat.

Yesterday's two races, 6 and 7, took Team NZ out to six wins, three from claiming the Cup. Oracle remain on minus one but it was the manner of the two wins which really resonated.

Team NZ skipper Dean Barker lost the start in Race 6 - but won by 47s. He won the start in Race 7 - and won by 1m 6s. Race 6 was held in 12 knots of breeze; Race 7 in 16.

But there were elements beyond the statistical that held sway yesterday - and which really cement the notion that Team NZ are about to claim yachting's greatest prize:

• Their speed upwind is unanswerable right now. Oracle postponed Race 6 to work on their boat and replaced tactician John Kostecki with Ainslie. Neither move made any difference.

• Their hull shape allows better manoeuvring through gybes and particularly tacks.

• Their boat handling is better, also allowing better gybes and tacks. They are able to sail closer to the wind and cover less distance.

• Their forward sails, their self-tacking jib is better.

• There are signs now that the Kiwi wingsail is more efficient and/or is trimmed better, particularly when they're heading upwind.

• Their tactics are better; Team NZ tactician Ray Davies is having a blinder.

• They are free of extreme pressure, able to keep to their so-far successful routines. Oracle are under severe pressure to try the unexpected; they need 10 wins to Team NZ's three.

• They have now shown the ability to foot it with Oracle in almost all conditions, save for that unusually poorly sailed Race 4. Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill clung to the idea that really light breezes (the minimum allowed for a race is 5 knots) had not yet been experienced but yesterday's winds were only 11 knots and 16 knots in average and Team NZ's overall package looks better.

What we are seeing is the power of percentages. It's possible to beat the percentages, sure, and both skippers were saying the same thing in a different way yesterday.

Barker: We haven't won yet and three races is a lot to win. Spithill: I want to pull off the greatest comeback in the history of the sport.

But the fact remains - the percentages usually apply. Oracle will be trying to change their configuration to boost their speed but the structural dice have already been rolled; there is little they can do to eat into Team NZ's race-winning command of the upwind leg.

That's why Oracle need some sort of engineering miracle. Somehow, they have to pull a rabbit out of a hat - but, in yachting terms, that would be like a magician surprising a crowd not only with the rabbit, but when they didn't even know he had a hat.

Spithill: "I am still convinced we can win races... we still haven't seen some conditions yet. Obviously these guys have an edge upwind and in tacking but we haven't seen the lighter conditions and code zeros [forward sails]. This is a long way from being over in my mind."

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Barker: "It feels great, it's nice to win races. But we know it's not over. You can have one bad day and we know how momentum can shift. We need three more races and, even though that doesn't sound a lot, there is still a lot of hard work ahead.

"We are under no illusions; it is a hard road ahead. But we do have a lot of confidence. The boat is going well. "So are the percentages."

- NZ Herald

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