Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Greatest Show on Water

by Henry Cunnison

Oracle Team USA
(photo: Jonathan Weber,
There was much scepticism before the start of the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco began earlier this month. Most analysts felt that the choice of huge double-hulled boats, the AC 72s, meant that races were bound to be one sided. It is true that before the start of the cup I too was sceptical. The qualification regatta, the Louis Viton cup, was a monotonous event, as Luna Rosa first dominated Team Artemis and then were themselves obliterated by Emirates Team New Zealand, who thus won the right to challenge the defenders, Oracle Team USA, in the Americas Cup final. Indeed, as Emirates surged to an 8-1 lead in the first to 9 series it appeared that these fears had been justified. Events since then have not only made this in fact probably the most exciting edition of the oldest competition in international sport but also one of the greatest sporting events in recent times.

Emirates Team New Zealand appeared to be unbeatable in the opening week of the event. They were faster both upwind and downwind then Oracle. They were also better at manoeuvring their boat. After only 5 races Oracle judged the situation to be so grave that they made a personal change, bringing in 4 time Olympic gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie as tactician in place of local John Kostecki. But still Oracle slumped.
Yet at the same time Oracle made other key developments. They optimised the boat for the prevailing heavy wind conditions. They gained experience, learnt from what the challenger was doing better than them. Whereas Emirates Tem New Zealand was at one point several knots[1]  faster, their advantage gradually became slimmer.
Nevertheless few took Oracle helmsman[2] Jimmy Spithill seriously when he suggested they could still win, with Emirates needing just one point having taken an 8-1 lead. Suddenly Oracle started sailing faster, and Spithill grew dominant on the start line. Most notably oracle gained a huge amount of speed upwind. They were able to foil[3] against the wind at 30 knots, meaning they could not only match Emirates Team New Zealand but go faster than them. They managed to improve their manoeuvres so that they no longer lost ground every time they tried to change direction. 

The challenger: Emirates Team New Zealand
(photo: Noel Randewich,
Again and Again they sailed away from Team New Zealand, and out of nowhere the pulled it back to 8 all, setting up a winner takes all finale on Wednesday. For the first time in several races, Dean Barker, helmsman of Emirates Team New Zealand managed to win the start and gain a narrow lead at the first mark. A nail bighting downwind leg followed, with Oracle just a boat length behind for the whole leg. But Emirates Held on until mark 3. However at this point Oracle passed and just sailed away on the upwind leg, which had early in the regatta, been their weakest link. The greatest comeback in sailing, maybe sporting, history was achieved.

Both teams deserve credit for making this event so extraordinary. Emirates Team New Zealand Sailed so brilliantly, particularly at the beginning of the series. They came so close to winning. In fact given that a race they were clearly on course to winning was abandoned as it exceeded the time limit, there is a strong case they should have won the event. You have to feel gutted for the whole set up, and the whole nation of New Zealand.
On the American side, victory ensures that the cup remains in the Hands of their team and billionaire backer Larry Ellison. Ben Ainslie deserves some of the credit; as soon has he joined the crew the boat did get faster. But also the people in charge with setting up the Boat played a key role. They made modifications and optimised her to the feedback the team gave. To some extent much of oracle’s improvement was probably also gained from simply from learning from, and in some cases improving the techniques Emirates Team New Zealand used so successfully early on in the event.
This was a landmark America’s cup. The First to feature foiling vessels, the longest and yet also by far the fastest; all in all the greatest in the 34 runnings of the event. It was a spectacular the like of which sailing has never seen before. It marks the future direction of sailing. I am happy to admit that before this regatta I, a sailor, thought sailing was not interesting to watch. Yet the 34 America’s cup proved me wrong. It was a sporting miracle to go alongside the Ryder cup at Medina, the Rumble in the Jungle and Super Bowl XLII.

[1] a knot is roughly equal to 1.15 MPH
[2] Driver of boat
[3] Lift hulls out of the water using the force generated from the foils (which help steer the boat)


  1. That Americas cup had to be the best one yet! I was on the edge of my seat all the time!!!!

  2. That series of the Americas Cup was amazing!!! It had me on the edgeof my seat all the time!!!!!!!

  3. That series was was deffinently the best one yet for sure!!!!! I think Ben Anslie was a big factor of it too although I feel for the Kiwi's !!!!!!!

  4. alexander downer 7y13 January 2014 at 14:49

    i love these giant hydrofoil boats! but the wing sail has a flaw, because it is fixed you cant reef it so they cant go out in strong winds thats why newzealand nealy capzised


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