Update: So much for conventional wisdom. Coming into the weekend’s races, a couple of hard truths seemed to have been established in the America’s Cup finals. Emirates Team New Zealand held what appeared to be an unbeatable advantage during the series’ upwind legs. New Zealand’s teamwork was nearly flawless and apparently there was nothing that could stop them from seizing the Cup—perhaps even by today’s races.
Then Saturday happened. In the middle of a tightly contested upwind leg on Race 8, the massive wing on New Zealand’s 72-foot catamaran fail to “pop” as it should have during a tack, and the giant boat came within an eyelash of capsizing. Oracle Team USA raced past the Kiwis and went on to score an easy victory. The American-backed boat was still down 6-0 because of its now-infamous two-race penalty, but its improved performance shifted the momentum away from New Zealand—especially after the second race of the day was canceled with the Kiwis having established another lead.
Today, the new story line gained some credence as Oracle thrashed the New Zealand boat on the upwind leg and won the rescheduled Race 9 easily Suddenly things were moving against the Kiwis. With the wind pushing up against the event’s safety limit, Race 10 was delayed past its scheduled 2:15 p.m. PDT start time. Then race officials gave the go ahead for the start. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Tom FitzGerald described what happened next as “spine-tingling.” Here’s how the official America’s Cup live blog summarized the action:
The Kiwis held the lead early in the race, but the defender made a huge charge on the upwind leg and rounded the windward gate with a 1 second advantage. The two crews split early on the ensuing run and when they came back together it was the Kiwis with starboard advantage and the lead, which they held to the finish. The lead changed hands four times in the race.
The standings: Races: New Zealand 7, Oracle 3. Points: New Zealand 7, USA 1 (Oracle Team USA’s second victory today works off the team’s two-race penalty).
When Emirates Team New Zealand suffered its near-calamity yesterday—its 72-foot America’s Cup catamaran lifted up and came close to flipping over as it raced against Oracle Team USA—I thought of Todd Niall. He’s a reporter for Radio New Zealand who’s enough of a sailing fan that he flew up to San Francisco on his own dime to take in the experience of the Cup finals. An added bonus for him and the thousands of other Kiwis who have traveled north for the event: the New Zealand team leads Cup defender Oracle Team USA six wins to two (6-0 in points because of the two-race penalty levied against Oracle). The tendency among rather casual fans like me has been to say you can pack up the Auld Mug and get it ready for its trip to Auckland. The arithmetic tells you that in the first-to-nine-wins format, New Zealand needs three more victories to take the Cup; even after winning in Race 8 on Saturday, Oracle still needs nine victories to prevail. In fact, the two crews have been so skillful that it’s easy to forget the risks inherent in sailing their giant 72-foot catamarans. As Niall said on Friday, 24 hours before New Zealand saw its boat heel over in the middle of Race 8, things with these boats can go very wrong very suddenly:
They’re big spectacular boats. You watch them up on the foils and you hold your breath as they come back into the water. There’s always the risk of a collision. You know, the old monohulls you might chip a bit out of the back of the boat if they touch, but if these things completely unintentionally collide, who knows what could happen? Team New Zealand doesn’t really have a second boat ready to go; Oracle does. Team New Zealand would have to cobble together equipment to get a second boat on the water, so there’s a lot that could go wrong.
Here’s the rest of my conversation with Niall. I started by asking him about one of the striking features of the America’s Cup finals so far: the fact New Zealand seemed to be consistently better heading upwind than Oracle Team USA. He also talked about how the America’s Cup has become a national event in his home country and the importance of New Zealand’s Cup campaign in promoting tourism and business there.