“Buried eight to one, we were looking down the barrel of a gun.” So said Oracle captain, Jimmy Spithill after bringing Team USA back from the abyss. When everyone else gave the US team up for finished, including media, Cup veterans and diehard fans, Spithill faced the Kiwis on match point, forcing his team to either lose the Cup or win the next eight straight races. No one gave him a chance.
Twisting on the hot seat while being grilled at doom-saying press conferences, he declared, in what the world thought was foolish bravado…., “We have a lot of racing ahead of us…….we can win races……I just look at it as a chance to stage the greatest comeback in sports history.” Yeah, sure was the consensus of everyone still listening.
Oracle supporters and media who figured they knew the final score jumped ship from San Francisco, that beautiful city by the Bay—just as Oracle began fighting back. If Oracle had the benefit of a trial series similar to the Louis Vuitton, Team USA might have started the Cup on all cylinders instead of finishing it that way. It is clear now that Oracle had not figured out how to sail their cat until their backs were against the wall.
The turning point came out after another decisive defeat, as they faced elimination with another race ready to begin. Russell Coutts sped up to the boat in his RIB and grabbed Spithil for a private woodshed conversation (watch the spoof video). Surrounded by buzzing Cup boats, media, photographers and devastated Oracle fans, the two of them strategized on the tender while the rest of the Oracle crew waited on deck for their leaders to figure things out. No one was sure if it was a knockdown, drag out battle, a pep talk, or a resigned discussion on how to face defeat at the press conference…
According to Spithill, this was a “backs to the wall” conversation that included Coutts telling Spithill that “it made no sense that the Kiwis were faster than them upwind.” They decided right there they had to figure that out so they pulled their card….declaring a lay day and went to work transforming the boat.
They went back to the designers and put the shore crew on an around-the-clock schedule reshaping and altering various aspects of the boat: foils, rudder angle, elevator, wing rake, bowsprit… and then the sailing team had to re-learn how to sail the boat on the layday. The result was a significant increase in speed and foiling ability that made the pace-setting Kiwi team look slow.
They also made a significant modification to the afterguard. In a controversial shake up they traded Bay area local and famed tactician John Kostecki for Sir Ben Ainslie. When asked about job security on board for either himself or Kostecki, Spithill replied, “No job is secure here, even mine… one day you’re a rooster, the next you’re a feather duster.”
Kostecki’s departure left Rome Kirby as the only American on board Oracle, fueling an increase in the cries for a nationality clause at future events.
While it appears that four-time Olympic gold medal winner Sir Ben Ainslie turned around the on-the-water tactics, the real improvement came with alterations that gained the team a few crucial knots upwind—just as Coutts, an engineer, had hoped. With those few extra knots they were able to step onto foils for sustained windward stretches and leap from 50 seconds behind the Kiwis to nearly 50 seconds ahead on weather legs.
The Kiwis had been the first to surprise Cup followers with foiling less than a year ago, while Oracle was recovering from a capsize that cost them four months of vital on-the-water time. But it was Oracle who made foiling work upwind consistently. Boat speed is a tactician’s best friend, and given those changes earlier in the series, Kostecki may have been the hero instead of Sir Ben. A new fifth gear created a weather leg passing lane for Oracle, which changed the race strategy completely. The different wing trim reduced their pitching, increasing stability which allowed them to level their boat to their advantage on various points……bow down in lighter air, up in heavier.
And once again, the faster boat won. Oracle went from minus two races to plus nine, with eleven victories in 19 races over 19 days. Down 8-1 they relentlessly chipped away, day by day, race by race, leg by leg, start by start until they won the final winner-take-all race and kept the America’s Cup in America.
No wonder the Kiwi skipper called it a “bit of a shocker” .
Read other America’s Cup posts
- America’s Cup Action Photos
- Louis Vuitton Produces Worthy America’s Cup Challenger
- America’s Cup 2013: A New Chapter
- The New America’s Cup: San Francisco Style