America's Cup: Correct boat set-up vital for that elusive win

By Paul Lewis

A jubilant Oracle Team USA acknowledge cheers from their supporters after yesterday's win. Photo / AP
A jubilant Oracle Team USA acknowledge cheers from their supporters after yesterday's win. Photo / AP

At the pleasant green park just over the road from the America's Cup, the hummingbirds were out. Tiny little things, they looked almost like insects, beating their wings at up to 200 beats a second, hovering in the air.

Just like New Zealand's America's Cup hopes now.

There are thousands upon thousands of Kiwis hovering in the air too - suspended by the victory that stubbornly refuses to arrive and alarmed by the fact that everything Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill has said is being proved right.

They really do seem to have the faster boat now and the "tools to do the job" - and Team New Zealand are still making mistakes moding their boat.

There are two races set down for today - that's if the arcane rules governing this regatta permit two races to be held.

But what everyone will also be watching this morning is what Team NZ can do to make their boat go faster.

Skipper Dean Barker was quietly adamant yesterday that the boat is going fine - and maintained his persistent stance that the win will come.

"It's not any one thing that we need to do," he said.

"It's just a lot of little things that we just have to keep working hard on and looking at those options."

Yesterday's race had no real variables in it - unlike Monday's racing.

It wasn't dependent on wind shifts, there were no wind "holes" and no sailing errors.

This was about setting up the boat and boat speed.

For 90 per cent of this five-leg course, the boats are pretty much even, with small advantages and disadvantages here and there.

But the Oracle boat seems to have much better acceleration off the line on that short, reaching sprint to the first mark.

They rocket round it, gain the advantage of hitting the downwind breeze first - and establish a lead of 100 metres straight away.

That has happened reasonably consistently and was not helped yesterday by Team NZ hoisting a code zero (a light airs forward sail designed to boost performance) at the start.

Barker and tactician Ray Davies admitted that they had expected lighter airs at the first mark and had prepared the code zero accordingly.

But the wind had picked up by the time they headed off and, with the kind of intricate but significant changes in speed that "tweaking" the AC72s can do, there was a strong suspicion that the code zero may have added to their drag off the start yesterday.

"You increase your chances of winning by getting round the first mark in front," said Barker.

"[On Monday] we didn't sail well downwind and we did a bit better today - but Oracle sailed well in protecting their lead."

There is an argument that Oracle are quicker reaching anyway and they may be a touch faster downwind.

However, if Emirates Team NZ can just get in front, the feeling is that they can still hold off Oracle.

The trick will be getting ahead in the current conditions.

Two races are scheduled today (though in this weird regatta with boats from the Facebook generation racing in rules set by the Flintstones generation and ruled with an iron schedule by The Great God TV, we have had only five days out of 13 where both races have been held).

Oracle have the favoured port entry for the first race, forecast to be in 18+ knots of wind and more for the second race - for which Team NZ have port entry. However, it didn't help them yesterday, losing by 33s.

They lost a little ground on each of the five legs.

Oracle, the last time the winds were at this level, were said to be better in stronger breezes - but we now know matters are heavily dependent on how well the boat is set up for the conditions.

Oracle have been doing a better job of predicting the weather and the winds and have moded their boat better to take advantage of it.

You have to admire their turnaround. That's five in a row now, seven out of the last nine.

It is eight races all, forgetting the jury penalty.

Spithill's regular chest-thumping narrative of how the team's adversity (their capsize and their disturbed programme last year; the penalties for cheating in the America's Cup World Series) has lit the fuse of their defiant comeback gets a little tedious at times.

But you have to give him and them this: they are backing it up by doing the business.

Team NZ can still do this. But they need to forecast just right, mode the boat just right and sail it just right.

Spithill takes swipe at Dalton's vanishing act

It may not have been intended that way but it felt like a real poke at Team New Zealand chief executive Grant Dalton.

Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill, asked about Oracle boss Larry Ellison's reaction to the comeback, said: "I bet he wishes he was out on the boat racing. He's a natural athlete, a very, very good, competitive kind of guy.

"He's a lot like [Oracle CEO] Russell Coutts. He won't let his ego get in the way and put himself on the boat. It's all about the team first and themselves second."

That seemed like a dig at 56-year-old Dalton, who has relinquished his grinder spot to Winston Macfarlane in recent races.

Dalton's absence has led some to wonder whether he has sacked himself. He has always said he would be the first to put his hand up and say so if he felt he was not the best choice.

The punishing match schedule has become even more demanding with organisers having run out of rest days.

Yesterday, just before the Ellison question was put to Spithill, Team NZ skipper Dean Barker was asked about Dalton not being on the crew list.

"Grant was happy not to be on the boat. He knows we are in a tough match so we are trying to get as much work on there as we possibly can. Dalts has trained hard to do this but he also feels the best scenario is to have Winston Macfarlane there."Asked if the change had made a difference, he said: "We have trained with guys in different set-ups. You don't notice the difference."

Earlier, Spithill had sung the praises of Coutts who had famously derided Dalton's ability as a 56-year-old to foot it in the new boats and with the physical expenditure required. The 51-year-old Coutts has said he wouldn't do the same thing.

"You want Russell Coutts on your team," said Spithill.

"He is the most successful skipper in the game and he knows the whole game - he is very good at long-term strategy and he is such a good sailor as well.

"But it isn't just about one person and we have got a lot of good people around us - and Russell would be the first person to say that."

Barker said he still wouldn't trade places with Oracle.

"They need three more, we would still rather be on match point," he said. "The Oracle guys have stepped it up and we need to be able to respond. We are talking about how we do things better - we are not error-free yet but we are very, very positive and know we can win. That belief will be there until the end."

- NZ Herald

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