The hundreds of hours that Peter Burling and his Emirates Team New Zealand crew spent playing cat-and-mouse with a fizz-boat off the shores of Waiheke Island are finally paying off.

When Team NZ’s 15-metre catamaran had no other yacht quite as quick and whippy to spar with to learn the art of the America’s Cup pre-start, the Kiwis had to improvise.

Sailing coach Ray Davies and chase-boat skipper Chris “Curly” Salthouse would take turns at the wheel of the high-powered Chase One tender, masquerading as Jimmy Spithill or Sir Ben Ainslie, and putting the AC50 through her paces in mock pre-starts on calm patches of the Hauraki Gulf.

Finally, a proud Davies saw that hard work come to fruition on Bermuda’s Great Sound on Monday, as Burling and Team NZ outsmarted the real Spithill and his Oracle Team USA crew at the start of races seven and eight of the 35th America’s Cup match. The reward: Team NZ are now 6-1 on the scoreboard, just one victory away from winning the Auld Mug.

“I’m really proud of both of those starts, pulling off plans that we talked about, and moves that we did back in New Zealand against the chase boat – and actually seeing it finally in a race,” Davies told a huddle of Kiwi journalists when Team NZ returned to their Dockyards base, two wins richer.

They were the starting manoeuvres of a master, carried out by a fresh-faced 26-year-old gunslinger, who gleefully admits that he’s thriving on the pressure of his first America’s Cup.

The imperturbable Burling had the experienced pugilist Spithill on the ropes in the first race start, when the Oracle boat dipped away just metres from the start-line when they didn’t need to – giving Team NZ an advantage at the first mark that they never relinquished. Burling kept a tight cover on the chasing Spithill, learning from his mistakes of the previous day.

The start of the second race was an act of genius from the Kiwi helmsman. As Spithill tried to box in the Kiwis to his right, Burling ducked under him and pushed Oracle head-to-wind. The US boat stuttered almost to a stop, while Team NZ leapt up on to their foils and sped away with a 14-second head-start at the line. Team NZ flew the entire race on their foils, never giving an opportunity to Oracle – who made two more costly mistakes during the race, including the basic blunder of sailing out over the boundary line.

“We’ve got a team that’s done it before, that’s come back from a situation like this.”

– Jimmy Spithill

Burling gave a long, wry smile when asked why he appeared to “wave goodbye” to Spithill as he left him virtually dead in the water.

“I actually made the comment to the boys: ‘It’s a bit easier if you do it like that’,” Burling chuckled. “We felt that if we pulled off the manoeuvre with them sitting two hulls in, we had a pretty good opportunity to get the hook. It’s something that you practise, you have plans – but to be able to execute and pull it off, it’s full credit to everyone on board.”

And he was typically modest about the way he has progressed in mere weeks – from what appeared to be a reluctant, almost hesitant, driver in the start box, to the shrewd aggressor.

“We just feel we are easing into it. We’re getting better as we go,” Burling said. “Not many people have actually done a pre-start in an AC50 with a competitive boat on the other side. Every opportunity we get to throw at these guys, we learn from it, improve from it. Today that really showed. We felt we did a lot better job today than we have this whole series so far.”

A more subdued Spithill conceded that he made an almighty error in the second start – one that would ultimately swing the pendulum squarely back on to the side of Team NZ. And, in a rare moment in this match, the brash Aussie pointed the finger at himself; not the umpires, not a fluky wind shift, and definitely not the software.

“We thought we would be able to pull a manoeuvre off, but clearly we couldn’t. It was a big mistake. That really handed it to Peter and these guys were in a pretty easy situation to hook us. That’s game over really,” the two-time Cup winner said.

There are loud murmurings that it could be game over for Spithill at the wheel of Oracle’s “17” when it hits the water again tomorrow; the sailing media relentlessly quizzing the skipper on whether he may be overthrown as helmsman.

“I’ll do whatever’s good for the team. If we think the team’s got a better chance with me off the wheel, no problem. That’s always been our attitude in the team – it’s always been you put the team before yourself,” Spithill said.

“We will put out a team, the people, the boat, the configuration on the water tomorrow that we think will give us our best chance of winning.” The matter would be discussed tonight, when Spithill met with his tactician, fellow Australian and Olympic dinghy champion Tom Slingsby – the obvious replacement at the wheel.

Team NZ won’t concern themselves with who is driving the American boat, which is still showing impressive speed, but paying the price for poor decision-making on board. The first race was a 12-second winning margin and the second, 30 seconds. But, in Oracle terms, they were one-mistake and three-mistake losses.

The fighter in Spithill hasn’t been knocked flat yet. He still talks about the “great comeback” in San Francisco four years ago, but it seems to be his last line of defence. “We have the same two teams in the match. We’ve got a team that’s done it before, that’s come back from a situation like this,” he said.

“This is clearly a time when you see a team potentially split apart. But what we saw when we got to shore was the boys pulling everyone in tight, and saying ‘Look this isn’t over, they haven’t handed over the trophy yet.’ And we are going to come out, and get stronger, and focus on one win at a time now.”

Burling and his team of mighty cyclors only have to focus on one more win. And prove that San Francisco is far, far removed from Bermuda.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

Leave a comment