Thursday will be “Judgment Day Two” on San Francisco Bay. The defenders of the America's Cup have to show us something, and show themselves something—or else. It's as big a deal as Day One, except we're no longer saying: “Nobody knows a thing until we have some races.” We've had races.
As of Race 5 on Tuesday it was still too soon to say that Oracle Team USA was out of the hunt, but they can't let that happen again—"that" being tactical errors compounded by boat handling errors stirred into an upwind speed deficit. There was nothing dramatic about any of these accounts, mind you. In fact, Oracle would have looked darned good and blazing fast if it hadn't been sharing the racecourse with Emirates Team New Zealand. Now the challengers from the antipodes have won four races, and Oracle's one win has the team carrying a two-race penalty, at -1. Not a good look.
With each team allotted one "postponement card," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill and his team played their card to put off race 6 for a couple of days, if for no other reason than to slow the bleeding. After a come-from-ahead loss, Spithill said, "There was a real chance we weren't going to win that one. It's obvious we've got to make some changes."
He also mentioned something about a need to “regroup." (For the post-race press conference, click here.) As of Wednesday, Oracle was back on the water, searching for something-something-something, while the challengers took the day off. Did I mention, not a good look?
Changes on the Way?
Internet forums immediately lit up with speculation that Oracle tactician John Kostecki could be sacked. When asked if he felt secure in his own job, Spithill allowed, "You can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next."
If you're Aussie, you've heard that before. If you've ever raced for the America's Cup, you know the reality.
Now that we have seen five races, it's apparent that Oracle has a beastier beast to manage. Compared to Oracle's all-hydraulic daggerboard controls, Team New Zealand mixes manual with hydraulic, and it looks smoother and faster, as the Kiwis lose little in the tacks. In some boats, 4-5 knots is a sailing speed. Here, it's the speed differential during tacks, with the advantage to the Kiwis.
I seem to recall that Oracle Racing owner Larry Ellison, eliminated from the Louis Vuitton Cup in 2007, was asked how it feels to spend a hundred million dollars to win the America's Cup. He responded, "I can tell you this. It certainly isn't worth a hundred million dollars to lose the America's Cup."
Now he's in much deeper than that, having funded almost the entire show, including a worldwide circuit in 45-foot cats; the development of new broadcast and umpiring technology; a couple of very expensive 72-foot boats; a small navy to manage said boats on the water, and a small army to manage them on the hard; an America's Cup Event Authority that was, essentially, a startup that failed; and an America's Cup Race Management operation that sets a new standard for competence, independence and fairness—not that Ellison gets much credit for that fact.
And "IT" is not over
No one at Oracle Team USA will say anything undiplomatic about this, but the decision by the international jury to bar Oracle's wing trimmer, Dirk "Cheese" de Ridder, from the regatta just might prove to be the thing the jury said it did not want to do. Specifically, the jury said it had "no intention to impose a penalty that will determine the outcome of the match." But while Oracle’s second-string trimmer, Kyle Langford, clearly has talent, the helmsman and wing trimmer aboard and AC72 have to be as Zen-linked as high wire acrobats. This was no time to bring in the backup trimmer. Every time a hull splashes down, one wonders—
Meanwhile, de Ridder will not go gentle into that good night. Paul Henderson, former president of the International Sailing Federation, wrote in a letter released by de Ridder's attorneys: "It appears that Mr. De Ridder was not given sufficient time to prepare a defense and was not made fully aware of the evidence being used to revoke his eligibility. I ask ISAF Executive Board to immediately strike a commission of the Review Board to hear this Eligibility situation against Mr. De Ridder and act accordingly. Only after due process is followed can a sailor’s eligibility be withdrawn. I trust that ISAF will act immediately on this issue in the best interest of all concerned but especially providing that the integrity of Sailing be maintained."
Lowered and re-lowered expectations have been a theme of the 34th America's Cup, which aimed high and delivered astounding competition but hasn't jelled in the way of a few other (not many) versions of the America’s Cup have in the past.
Considering that there had not been a "proper" match since Valencia 2007, and weighing the television-audience prospect of going against World Cup football (soccer, to Americans) in 2014, the match was set for 2013. Now here we are with the boats still on a development curve (Spithill: "If we had another six months, I wouldn't be surprised to see 50 knots") and time running out and the American defender still looking for that something-something-something. It's been only weeks since both boats started to foil upwind, part of the time.
So, we have prototypes, no doubt the first and last generation of AC72s, even if future Cups are sailed in multihulls. And until May 9 we had Artemis 1, which broke up and claimed the life of Andrew Simpson, who continues to be remembered in ways large and small. At the San Francisco Academy of Art University, 18 fine arts students painted a mural 116 feet by 50 feet, depicting America's Cup catamarans sailing on San Francisco Bay. The mural, on the side of an Academy administration building, is now dedicated to the memory of Andrew Simpson. Student painter Raquel Lupica called the work, "The most amazing thing that any of us have done."
The sailors on the water in 2013 would say the same about what they are doing. There is no such thing as an ordinary morning leaving the dock on an AC72. Race 6 is scheduled for 1315 PDT, race 7 will begin at 1415. Having played their one and only postponement card, Oracle now cannot break without being broken.
Another judgment day in every sense of the word.