It was barely a fortnight ago that Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill smugly decried the strength of Emirates Team New Zealand’s crew work.
The Kiwis, he crowed, made “pretty fundamental mistakes” on their boat, and lacked the tactical muscle of the Australian trio on the American catamaran.
Now 0-3 down in the first-to-seven America’s Cup match, Spithill has changed his tune. When asked today where it was that the New Zealanders had it over his team, he replied: “They obviously have speed; and they had a little edge in some of the manoeuvres. They are a very, very strong team”.
And although Team NZ have shown in the first two days of the match they have an obvious speed advantage, their rapport and efficiency as a sailing crew could ultimately give them the edge.
Over a five-day break from racing, Oracle will deconstruct their defence to see where it’s all going wrong. Having generally been a knot slower around the course than Team NZ, they will hunt for more speed, no question. But they may also cast a critical eye over their own manoeuvring and make-up of their crew – as they did at crunch time in the 2013 America’s Cup, before the Great Comeback.
“It’s pretty obvious these guys are faster, and we need to make some serious changes. Clearly, we need to put everything back on the table. These next five days will be the most important five days in the campaign,” Spithill says.
These will be five crucial days for the Kiwis too. While the defenders search for solutions, Team NZ will not rest. Their AC50 is back in the shed in Bermuda’s Dockyards, about to be tweaked and tuned further. In what has become the team’s catch-cry: “There’s still plenty of speed on the table”.
The sailors will continue to push hard for their own improvements. Young Kiwi helmsman Peter Burling still wasn’t happy with the number of mistakes Team NZ made on the Great Sound on day two – despite two comfortable victories over Oracle, who never challenged them on the racecourse.
“Regardless of speed, manoeuvrability has turned into a major strength for them,” says former Team NZ designer and navigator Mike Drummond. “I don’t know why the other teams haven’t been able to emulate Team New Zealand’s manoeuvres. Look how many times Oracle touch down and then carry on in a tack,” he says.
Drummond, who was also a navigator, is impressed with the way the New Zealand crew have stuck to their own game plan. “They may not have the same match-racing experience as Spithill but they are very happy to sail their own race and try not to mix it up,” he says.
“There were a couple of times when they could have gone hunting for penalties, but they chose not to, or missed the opportunity because they were sailing their boat faster. I think Team New Zealand will be clear-headed enough to stick to what they know.”
Burling continues to prove that he is quickly learning more about match-racing. His starts are testament to that.
He held his own in the start-box again on day two, even when Spithill tried to force the Kiwis into trouble in both starts. In the second race of the day, Team NZ had trouble getting their dagger-boards down in the pre-start, and were late to the gunfight. But “our guys kept finding ways to sneak out of situations”, explained the Kiwi helmsman, who managed to steer clear and find superior speed out of the blocks, and led at the first mark on both occasions.
Oracle had switched to their high-speed dagger-boards, hoping to get more pace from them than the light-air foils they wore the day before. But around 11 knots of wind, Team NZ’s kinked foils had the edge, and they made gains on Oracle both upwind and down.
The winning margins of 49s and 1m 12s were a true reflection of the day – the defenders were simply never in the hunt.
With “everything on the table”, the men on board Oracle “17” may be looking over their shoulders in the next few days, as a change in crew could also be on the cards. Maybe no-one more so than tactician Tom Slingsby.
In 2013, at 8-1 down, the Americans swapped out their tactician San Francisco native John Kostecki, with the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, Sir Ben Ainslie. The team’s chemistry changed for the better, and so did their fate.
“I doubt that a change of crew will make a difference,” Drummond says. “In the AC72s, the tacticians were a lot more hands off. And Slingsby seems to be doing a good job. Changing him isn’t going to improve a tack.”
So where can they pick up speed, and are five days long enough to make Cup-winning improvements? Drummond says Oracle designers will be looking to reduce the drag, from the foils and the wing-sail. While he doesn’t believe a lot can be done to the wing, there is room to improve with foils.
“It takes time to build or change your foils, but with a bit of commitment they could do quite a lot – we saw how Team New Zealand repaired their capsize damage quite quickly. But foils need careful construction and you can’t rush the process if you want to get it exactly right,” he says. “Perhaps they have a quiver of pre-made appendages?
“In the first instance, you always look at the other guy and copy, then take another step forward if you can. I’m not sure how easy it is to take a photo of another boat’s rudder or foil and see the fine details of it. The geometric differences between these foils will be a few millimetres. Taking a photo with a telephoto lens from 50 metres away won’t be that accurate, and being painted black makes it hard to determine their shapes.
“Last week, and even yesterday, Oracle would have thought they were as good as they could be. They now realise there must be a better solution out there.”
Improving won’t be an issue for Team NZ, Burling was quick to point out. “Our team is really hungry to keep learning, keep moving forward, keep improving. We know if we stand still these guys will be catching us,” Burling said. “It’s a lot harder for them if we keep pushing them.”
The Kiwi boat is sailing a lot faster than it was a few weeks ago. There are new components on board, flown in from Auckland before the Cup match began. But the crew are also a lot more skilled at taming the bucking bronco, and much better at coaxing extra speed out of it.
When a Russian journalist inquired at the post-racing press conference if Team NZ had a secret weapon they would bring out for the second stanza of the match, Burling drolly replied: “If we did have something secret, we probably wouldn’t be sharing it here.”
“We already have a massive list of things we want to work on, improve on, keep getting better in,” he said. “Today we sailed a lot of areas better, but we also made a lot of mistakes. It felt like we were still a long way from where we could be. You just have to look at where these boats could be in a year’s time to realise we are all still on an incredibly steep part of the learning curve.”
This is an unusual break in America’s Cup tradition; in the past there has been one race a day, with the odd lay-day dotted throughout the match. When racing resumes on Sunday (NZ time), there will be no more rest days – the teams will keep going head-to-head until one reaches the magical seven points.