It’s a distressing sight that encapsulated one of the more bizarre days in the 170-year history of the America’s Cup.

Team NZ grinder Mike Lee ashen-faced, doubled-over and struggling to regain his breath – and keep his lunch down – after winning race eight of the Cup match in Auckland. A victory that the defenders had looked to have thrown away with the biggest mistake they’d made in this regatta.

That image of an exhausted Lee – who before this America’s Cup was a New Zealand surf lifesaving hard man, not a sailor – summarises just how hard the Kiwis had fought. Not only to get back into a race where they were trailing by over four minutes, but to keep their boat up on its foils in the dying breeze on the Hauraki Gulf.

But the pain Lee and the seven other grinders on board Te Rehutai endured in what turned out to be an almost four-minute victory over the challenger, Luna Rossa, was quickly overtaken by the quiet elation that Team NZ was now 5-3 up in the first-to-seven match.

With their second win of the day, they’d finally broken the four-day deadlock with the Italians, and may now be just one race day away from successfully defending the Auld Mug. 

But in this fickle and sometimes cruel sport of sailing, the New Zealanders could also be locked at 5-5 by the end of today. They are, after all, up against the Cup’s King of the Comeback, Luna Rossa’s co-helmsman Jimmy Spithill.  

Blair Tuke, Team NZ’s flight controller, paid his grinders kudos for keeping them in the second race of the day on Monday – when on their first run downwind, they’d botched a gybe and fallen off their foils just as they were about to roll over Luna Rossa and snatch the lead.

Team NZ grinder Mike Lee, right, with crew mates Andy Maloney and Marcus van der Pol after winning last year’s America’s Cup World Series. Photo: ETNZ

As the Italians sailed off into the distance, opening up an astronomical 3km advantage, Team NZ turned to their manpower – essentially the boat’s engine – to lift them back up off the water.

And then, when way off on the horizon, they could see the Italians suffer the same fate – splashing down within 100m of the third gate – the Kiwis knew they were back in with a chance, if the grinders could do their utmost to keep them foiling.

“That was as tough as I’ve seen them do a race, and they were pretty knackered afterwards,” Tuke said.

“That race was already a tough one in the light air because you’re changing the shape of the sails so much. When we touch down, that take-off again takes a lot of power. But this is what these guys have trained years for, and they wouldn’t change it. They relish that kind of opportunity.

“Mike [Lee] is one of the guys who grinds backwards, so it’s pretty muscular grinding. Like all the boys, he put in a huge effort.  At the end of a race like that, it’s exactly where you want to see your guys, having given it their all.”

And they’re expected to come back today and do it all again – but in a different headspace, with the confidence of now being just two race wins away from victory.

As Te Rehutai was towed back into Team NZ’s base, crowds waiting in a ring around the Viaduct Harbour screamed and applauded. Until now, the defenders had returned home at the end of each race day with one win from two races. Luna Rossa just the same.

The Kiwi crew, who by tradition don’t get emotional or celebratory after a race win, had allowed themselves each a broad smile. They knew how close it had come to being another 1-1 day.

There had been an almost oppressive air around Auckland’s Viaduct on Monday that something was about to change. That one team was finally going to clinch a two-point buffer for the first time in this very unconventional match.

Both teams meant business in the way they left the dock. The Luna Rossa base erupted to “Black Betty” cheering its sailors like it was their day.

Francesco Bruni runs down the Luna Rossa gangway before racing on day five of the America’s Cup. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Draped in an Italian flag billowing behind him, Luna Rossa’s other helmsman, Francesco Bruni, ran down the gangway like Superman. The ice man, Spithill, strode down to the Luna Rossa boat to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”, and the lyrics ‘Obey your master!’

Team NZ’s farewell was more subdued, but still powerful. A waiata from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei rang out through the loud speakers and echoed around the Viaduct.

Out on course E – the now notorious ‘back paddock’ off Auckland’s eastern beaches – the wind was stronger than the abandoned day before, but still unstable.

The first race turned out to be a masterclass in sailing dealt out by Team NZ skipper Peter Burling in a faster, smarter configured boat.

Both teams sped up to the start box at 45 knots, but once again Burling couldn’t get on top of Spithill. Te Rehutai turned back to the line first, but both boats were early and had to dip, before crossing almost simultaneously. The Italians, though, were going seven knots faster and slid past Te Rehutai, slowly stretching out.

Team NZ wanted to engage in a tacking duel, and began to close the gap, but the Italians led by 8s at the top mark. Holding that lead on the run, they failed to cover Team NZ after rounding the bottom mark, and Burling spotted a slight wind shift on the right side of the course and made they most of it. That resulted in the first lead change in seven races so far – and the Kiwis then stormed away with the race.

They were markedly quicker up wind, and faster and cleaner through their tacks, thanks in part to hoisting a smaller jib than the Italians. A smaller sail means less flap, less drag and therefore, more speed.

Suddenly the lead was 500m and the New Zealanders were going eight knots faster downwind. As Cup commentator, Olympic champion Shirley Robertson, called it, the Kiwis had put their afterburners on. Finally they were exhibiting the speed everyone had predicted before the match began.

Burling explained Team NZ had made a few modifications after struggling a little out of tacks in the earlier races. “A whole lot of the things we’d practise and we’d been talking about, we’re actually seeing in action.”

Te Rehutai, Team NZ’s AC75, was clearly the faster boat in winning race 7 of the America’s Cup match with Luna Rossa. Photo: ACE | Studio Borlenghi

Immediately after the race, the Italian afterguard huddled in an intense meeting with sailing mentor Vasco Vascotto and coach Philippe Presti to figure out how they could respond in the next race.

Bruni came out with fighting talk. The Italians were happy with the start and their choice of jib.  

“We are not giving up. We can still win races. We will keep fighting,” he said from the boat. “I wouldn’t change one thing from what we have done so far.”

And they didn’t. They stuck with their bigger headsail for the second race of the day, as the wind started to drop away just before the start.  A minute before the starting sequence began, Team NZ realised they should have changed their jib – but it was too late.

There was again little in it at the startline, but Luna Rossa wanted the left – spotting a decent wind shift. Burling tacked away to the right after crossing the line to avoid getting starved in the Italian’s wind shadow.

The Italians made most of the left-hand shift and led at the top mark by 16s. Downwind, Team NZ closed right in and then suddenly gybed to try to snatch the lead. But it backfired – a bad manoeuvre teamed with getting caught up in the Italians’ dirty air – and they splashed down, and stayed down.  Desperately searching for pressure to get up off the water again, they started sailing in the opposite direction – and the Italians just kept flying towards the bottom mark.

“We were pretty annoyed at ourselves when we fell off,” Tuke said. “But you don’t dwell on it too much; you get the boat going as quickly as you can and hope you don’t make another mistake.”

Chasing down over 3000m difference, after rounding 4m 8s behind, Team NZ’s crew spotted Luna Rossa fall off their foils in a tack as they approached the spectator fleet at the opposite end of the course.

“We could see – just – we were pretty far away,” Tuke said. “There weren’t too many words spoken on our boat. “We just knew to keep going and concentrate on our next manoeuvre and then the next.”

“There’s no one at the base… who’s curled up in the corner crying it out” – Luna Rossa’s Jimmy Spithill.

Still floundering, the Italians were slapped with penalty after penalty for sailing outside the course boundary, trying to find pressure to help lift them up again. They lost almost nine minutes in the search.

It was both painful and hypnotic to watch. But that’s sailing – and the Kiwis knew to never give up.

“They were still off [their foils] at the top and we just kept going. In those conditions you don’t look around too much. You just concentrate on yourself and do the best job you can,” Tuke said.

“But we managed to keep it foiling the whole time from then on. It wasn’t straight forward for us, but we did a nice job.”

There were shades of San Francisco 2013 – when Oracle came back from 8-1 down to beat Team NZ 9-8 – in Spithill’s parting words last night.

“I don’t view the day as lost opportunities. You’re either winning or you’re learning. I think we learned a lot today and that’s going to help us get stronger as a team, and help us win races,” he said.  

“There’s no one at the base, I can tell you right now, who’s curled up in the corner crying it out. No one is throwing the towel in. It’s been a tough road to get to this Cup so we know the team can bounce back and respond and come out swinging tomorrow.”

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

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