Oracle USA and skipper Jim Spithill not only did the “impossible” in successfully defending the America’s Cup, but in the end they almost made it look easy —a feat that is all the more incredible given how far the team came in so little time.
And make no mistake: this was a team effort in the truest sense of the word, with the shore team and sailors out on the Oracle AC72 meshing in a way that in two weeks turned what looked like a bunch of also-rans into a team that was literally unbeatable.
As is inevitably the case in a sport of rich men, there will be those who attribute Oracle’s success to the almost infinitely deep pockets of its billionaire patron, Larry Ellison. (And the amount of money Ellison spent in the month of September keeping his maritime army going 24/7 would likely stagger the imagination.)
But picking nits in this fashion does an injustice to the sailors, designers, builders and engineers whose hard work made this truly epic come-from-behind-victory possible—both their skill and their tenacity.
For in the end, it was tenacity that allowed Oracle USA to prevail, in particular the tenacity of the team’s skipper, Jimmy Spithill, and it’s CEO, Russell Coutts.
A former boxer and gifted sailor who truly pulled himself up by his bootstraps in his native Australia, Spithill almost singlehandedly kept his team in the hunt by beating up Emirates Team New Zealand in the pre-starts early on in the series. This, in turn, helped buy Coutts and the rest of the team the time they needed to “crack the code,” as Ellison put it and sail their AC 72 to its absolute maximum—especially to windward, where by the end Oracle was able to sail around ETNZ at will.
“We came from behind, the guys showed so much heart. On your own you’re nothing, but a team like this can make you look great… We were facing the barrel of a gun at 8-1 and the guys didn’t even flinch,” Spithill, now a two-time Cup winner, said, and he wasn’t exaggerating. In the early days of the series, you could almost hear the sniggers in the back of the room when Spithill insisted he and his team weren’t done yet, but he meant it and the team made good through the sheer force of their collective will.
It all started on Wednesday, September 18—what now feels like ages ago—when the Kiwis went up 8-1 in the best of 17 series, and the second scheduled race was abandoned when the wind limits were exceeded shortly after the start. By rights, the following day should have been it, and easy match point. But it was then that Oracle began its incredible run, preventing ETNZ from ever getting the one additional victory it needed to seal the deal.
What followed was an emotional roller coaster ride, with two additional abandonments, both ending races the Kiwis would have almost certainly won if they’d been allowed to finish; a near Kiwi capsize during a crossing in Race 8; more lead changes than you could count; an increasingly aggressive Spithill, especially in the early stages of the racing; multiple postponements due to too much wind or not enough; and, most important of all, a team Oracle that just seemed to get smoother and faster and more confident with every passing day.
In retrospect, the American campaign pretty much sealed the deal in the races 17 and 18, in which they tied it all up, forcing a winner-take-all race 19. In the first of the two races, Spithill absolutely dominated the Kiwi skipper Dean Barker, causing him to take not just one but two penalties, in essence knocking ETNZ before the boat had even truly started. Then in race 18 came “the pass” in which Oracle walked by ETNZ like they were sitting still on the windward leg, getting up on its foils as it did so, for good measure. The look on Dean Barker’s face afterward as his boat was heading back to the dock said it all.
Race 19, by contrast, was a pretty straightforward one from beginning to end. It appeared the Oracle’s strategy was to simply stay out of trouble, keep it close until the leeward mark and then just steam by the Kiwis sailing leg number 3 to windward—which is precisely what they did.
The result is nothing less than historic, an Oracle rally and an ETNZ collapse that are almost without parallel in the annals of professional sports: a regatta that for all its chaos, confusion, controversy and tragedy served as a true testament to the strength of the human spirit; and for the rest of us, a contest that it was a privilege to witness. It’s unlikely we’ll see it’s like again for some time to come.