Oracle Team USA sailed “low and fast” in eight consecutive races to foil New Zealand’s America’s Cup dream
The 34th America’s Cup was supposed to be the most spectacular ever. It almost went down in Cup history as the biggest bomb ever. Instead it will rank as one of sports’ most improbable comebacks: Oracle Team USA fights back from an 8-1 deficit to snatch the Auld Mug from Emirates Team New Zealand, 9-8.
It’s almost a cliché to say so now, but the big black cat, Oracle’s AC72, really did have nine lives — or at least eight: one for each race it won at match point with Brit Ben Ainslie calling tactics and Aussie Jimmy Spithill at the helm, urging his team forward like a general leading his men in an assault on an impregnable fortress.
“Never give in — never, never, never, never,” Winston Churchill once intoned, rallying his countrymen during World War II’s darkest hours. And Oracle? How did America’s team come back and win eight straight to successfully defend the Cup against a New Zealand team that clearly was faster and sharper when the racing opened Sept. 7 on San Francisco Bay?
“How did it happen?” Spithill replied in response to the question everyone was asking. “We never gave up. It really is about never giving up.”
It also was about some very impressive teamwork and technology. Oracle’s crew learned to sail the boat faster literally “on the fly” as the regatta unfolded. Some very impressive information, communications and processing technology gathered gigabytes of performance data daily. Some of that information went to PDAs carried by each crewman to help him tweak the boat while racing. The rest of it went to a chase boat — an information hub — that sent it to a database shoreside.
Then every night a crew of designers, engineers and fabricators toiled away at the herculean task of analyzing all that data — more than 300 gigabytes, including videos — on computers to find out where they could modify the boat to make it faster for the next day’s racing. The modifications were legal, approved by official measurers who issued a new measuring certificate for the boat every day before the start of racing.
“It was a combination of our engineering team (headed up by Oracle’s lead designer, Dirk Kramers) and our guys out on the water,” Larry Ellison, the team’s billionaire owner and the founder of San Francisco-based Oracle Corp., which supplied much of Oracle’s computer and database technology, said in remarks after the final race.
“What went wrong?” Emirates managing director Grant Dalton asked, responding to the other question everyone was asking. “We weren’t quick enough in the end, I think.” The old Cup maxim held sway: The faster boat always wins.
For the New Zealand team and its skipper, Dean Barker, who had lost earlier Cup bids in 2003 and 2007, the collapse was devastating. “My job now is to support the guys,” Dalton said. “They’re feeling pretty bad,” as were their families, their friends — indeed all of New Zealand, a country with a proud sailing tradition. TV broadcasts of the Cup had drawn the highest ratings in that nation’s history.
Ellison and his CEO, Kiwi Russell Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup winner, had planned to turn the 34th Cup into the most spectacular in its history. They devised their strategy with three key ingredients. First, the boat: the AC72, a 40-knot, 72-foot catamaran turbocharged with a 13-story rigid wingsail and foils, as well as L- and T-shaped fins on the bottom of the hull that enabled it to rise up out of the water and “fly.” Second, they brought the racecourse close to shore, where more spectators than ever before could watch the action play out in the lively conditions of San Francisco Bay against the scenic backdrop of its Golden Gate Bridge, downtown and seven hills.
Lastly, they invested in a strategy for broadcasting the matches live to 170 countries on TV and YouTube, using HD cameras and microphones aboard the boats, live helicopter feeds and crackerjack data visualization from champion sailor and technologist Stan Honey’s Sportvision, accompanied by expert commentary from Cup veterans Ken Read and Gary Jobson. The broadcasts were designed to get the action out to as many people as possible while drawing in the uninitiated with clear explanations of match-racing tactics and simple visual guides that showed who was winning and by how much.
Smoking downwind as fast as 50 mph and tacking upwind on their foils at remarkable speeds of 30-plus mph, the AC72s were breathtaking to behold, made more so with video taken from the air and close-ups of the crew from on-board cameras.
“I think this regatta was the most magnificent spectacle I’ve ever seen on the water,” Ellison said.
He pretty handily refuted the old saw that watching sailboat racing has to be as boring as watching paint dry. But if the finale to this edition of the Cup was as nerve-racking as any closely contested NASCAR race, the start was bumpy — so bumpy that many predicted it would turn out to be a colossal flop and Ellison’s folly.
The cost of an AC72 campaign — $8 million for the boat, $100 million to $200 million for the campaign — was exorbitant, even by Cup standards, especially after one of the worst economic downturns in memory. Ellison and Coutts had hoped for a dozen challengers, but just three materialized: Sweden’s Artemis Racing, Italy’s Luna Rossa Challenge and Emirates Team New Zealand. The tiny field “obviously shows that the costs have become prohibitive,” says Scott McLeod, managing director of the Stamford, Conn.-based U.S. office of WSM Communications, an international sports marketing and communications firm, before the Cup. Corporate sponsors couldn’t afford to play the game, so wealthy benefactors such as Ellison had to shoulder the financial burden.
Then, before the regatta started, the safety of the AC72s came under scrutiny. One of Oracle’s catamarans pitchpoled and broke apart last October during training. Spithill says that was the first big bomb to shake the Oracle campaign, but one that steeled the team for challenges ahead. Not only did the capsize raise a chorus of criticism about the safety and durability of the goliath cats, but it also set the Oracle campaign back and into catch-up mode as the team rushed to finish a second boat.
The day after the capsize, Spithill reported for work at the team base at San Francisco’s Pier 18. “The first guy to call me was Larry,” Spithill says. “I was sort of expecting a call from [him], to be honest. I didn’t know which way it was going to go, so right off the bat I put my hand up and said, ‘Hey man, I’m sorry. I’m fully responsible.’ Straight away he said, ‘I don’t want to hear that. You’re a champion. You’ve got a champion team. This isn’t the first bit of adversity you’ve faced. You’ll come back from this,’ ” Spithill recalls.
The Oracle skipper says it was a pivotal moment for him and for jelling the team. Caught on their back foot, Oracle Team USA — 200 strong — pulled together and shifted into overdrive. “I’ll never forget [that talk with Ellison],” he says. “I’m in debt to him. That’s really what drove me the whole time. I owed it to him because he believed in me.”
In May, British sailor Andrew Simpson died when Artemis Racing capsized during a training run. This triggered more criticism of the AC72s, re-evaluation of their safety and the adoption of wind limits and other safety measures. Some predicted that the cats would never stand up to the rigors of Cup competition.
Artemis was late joining the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger elimination series in June as it reassessed its program and put a new boat together, giving the Kiwis the opportunity to handily dominate and win the series. Team New Zealand won 7 races; Luna Rossa Challenge, 1; and Artemis Racing, none.
Then it appeared the Cup competition might founder when Cup team African Diaspora Maritime Corp. filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to shut down the racing even before its start while the New York Supreme Court litigated ADM’s complaint that the Golden Gate Yacht Club — Oracle’s club — did not act in good faith in rejecting its application to race for defense of the Cup. This second bomb failed to detonate. ADM withdrew its motion, but the complaint remains active.
As the Cup regatta got under way, it appeared that the competition might become a Kiwi cakewalk, too. A third bomb: An international jury penalized Oracle for illegally adding weight to one of its 45-foot catamarans in pre-Cup events, putting it two points in the hole and removing its first-string wing trimmer, Dirk de Ridder, from the crew as Cup racing started.
It was another setback for a team that still was playing catch-up in its run-up to the Cup. Meanwhile, New Zealand was at the top of its game for the first Cup race, Dalton says. The team had trained against Luna Rossa in New Zealand, refining its match-racing tactics and maneuvers in this newfangled “foiler,” and it used the challenger series to further sharpen its crew and tweak the boat for speed. Yet Dalton says his team intentionally held back in the Louis Vuitton and waited for the first race against Oracle to show its real speed. “We wanted to go as fast as we could on Day 1,” he says. “We were massively faster [that first day] than we were in the Louis Vuitton finals.”
Oracle got caught flat-footed. The American team — which actually fielded just two American sailors, trimmer Rome Kirby and tactician John Kostecki — was competitive in the starts and the downwind gallops, but it was getting eaten alive in the upwind foiling and tacking, and in some of the precision maneuvers and tactics. Another bomb.
In the months leading up to the Cup, Oracle’s brain trust thought their boat was strong upwind but less so downwind. “So we put a lot of emphasis on downwind and didn’t pay enough attention to upwind,” lead designer Kramers says. Another issue: “We pushed the development too late and didn’t give the sailors enough time to learn how to sail the boat,” he says. The crew learned to sail “on the fly” while racing against some of the best sailors and one of the fastest boats in the world.
By the third day of racing, Oracle had just one win to Team New Zealand’s four and was down 4 to minus 1 in points. Buying time, Oracle played its postponement card, which each team could do once during the regatta. They huddled shoreside at Pier 18 for a 47-hour timeout, pored over data and put Cup veteran Mark Turner’s shore crew to work on daily modifications to squeeze more upwind speed out of their AC72.
Meanwhile, the sailors worked feverishly on how to sail the boat faster. The team also sent in four-time British Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie — the helmsman on Oracle’s second boat — to relieve Kostecki as tactician and jump-start the team. “In these boats, it’s a development class,” Spithill says. “It’s a development game. We started the regatta slower than the other team, but we ended this regatta faster. It was an incredible team effort.”
But it was slow in coming. Oracle went on to lose five more races, but as the regatta unfolded, commentators noted improvements in Oracle’s boat speed and maneuvers, much improved crew work and fewer mistakes. By the ninth day of racing, with Emirates leading 8-1 in points, the Oracle boat and team finally were dialed in. “We finally broke the code,” as Ellison put it.
“The major changes, in my view, were the balance of the boat, where obviously the load sharing between the foils is critical, so we adjusted that quite a lot,” Coutts told the New York Times. “We changed that loading by manipulating the wing shapes and flaps.”
Elaborating, Kramers says the boat had been a bit unstable upwind. Better balance offset any tendency for it to turn into or away from the wind, but also kept it from pitching or yawing, all of which is more complex on a multihull flying on foils. He says the shore crew adjusted the flap angles on the wing, fine-tuned the hull shape and tweaked the geometry of the rudder wings. They also removed the bowsprit to reduce windage and weight and refined the adjustment of the foils, among other changes. “We made a number of relatively modest changes that together made a significant difference in the way the boat behaved,” he says.
The second-shift shore crew worked through the night to accomplish all of this. “They’re the ones that really had to dig in,” Spithill says. “It was very hard work,” shore crew manager Turner agrees. Between that and the pre-Cup preparations, “I barely slept for about two months.”
The shore crew not only worked on change orders, but also completed a full schedule of maintenance every night. “We put a lot of energy into that,” Turner says. “We wanted to make darned sure we didn’t have a failure out there. That would have been a complete show stopper.” They worked on the boat day to day with the anxiety of knowing that each day could be the one when they’d have to go home empty-handed. “But every day the guys came back to sail another day,” he says. “It was amazing.”
Ellison said that besides making changes to the boat, “the guys also [learned to sail] it quite a bit differently.” They learned by watching the Kiwis, who came “extremely well prepared,” and turned the corner on boat handling when they figured out how to heed Coutts’ advice to sail it low and fast instead of high and slow, where the boat was more likely to pop a foil and drop back into the water, he said. Velocity-made-good (VMG) edged up as the crew’s mastery of “low and fast” improved.
From Day 9 forward, Oracle never lost a race. It rolled up eight straight wins and caught a pivotal bit of good luck. On the fifth day of racing, the 40-minute time limit expired on a light-air race and it was abandoned with New Zealand leading by a sizable margin. Oracle crossed the finish in the last race, on Sept. 25, 44 seconds ahead of TNZ to keep the America’s Cup in a comeback for the ages.
Dalton says Oracle’s upwind advantage had grown to 1.5 minutes during the last 10 days of racing. “That’s a huge improvement,” he says, although New Zealand also got faster during the regatta, just not as fast as Oracle. “At the bottom end of one tack [in the last race], we [dropped to] 14 knots. A month ago we were bottoming out at 10 to 11, so we have improved a huge amount, as well, but in the end I guess we weren’t fast enough.”
Geared to peak at the start, TNZ didn’t have a lot of reserve speed to draw from. Oracle never stopped eking out a bit more. “They did a better job of finding that extra gear that we couldn’t,” Barker says.
Eight-time Cup contender Tom Whidden, CEO of North Sails, said the Kiwis calculated near the end that they had to make 18 knots VMG downwind — a very fast pace — to beat Oracle and they couldn’t do it. He says the outcome may have been influenced by the teams’ different design strategies and by challenges Oracle faced along the way. TNZ wanted to build a strong boat first, then make it faster, he says. Oracle went for speed first, then strength. Oracle’s crippling capsize early on might have worked to its advantage, he says, as it gave designers and engineers a chance to look afresh at the boat and incorporate new ideas in the rebuild, based partly on what they were seeing the Kiwis and the other challengers doing with their boats.
Kramers says the Oracle team was confident their boat had the speed. Their challenge was to find that “extra gear” before it was too late and, having shifted into it, to recover from an 8-1 deficit with no mistakes — a tall, tall order. “We had the boat speed and the talent to win,” Kramers says. “But there was no margin for error.” Champions that they are, Oracle rolled up eight near-perfect races at the end.
So what now? The Golden Gate Yacht Club, Oracle’s home club in San Francisco, has confirmed that the Hamilton Island Yacht Club on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia, has challenged for the 35th America’s Cup. Ellison, who as winner of the 34th Cup decides where the next Cup will be raced, says he doesn’t know for sure, although he thought San Francisco turned out to be a spectacular venue. Some have speculated that he might race the next one in Hawaii, where he owns a home. (Actually, he owns most of the island of Lanai.)
He acknowledges that the cost of racing in this Cup was problematic. “It’s no secret that these boats are expensive, and we’d like to have more competing,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to accomplish both: get more countries competing next time and keep it as spectacular as it was this last regatta.”
Ellison remains bullish on team CEO Coutts, who has yet to lose an America’s Cup. “He can keep his job as long as he wants it. Russell Coutts is our leader,” he said.
Despite the bumps, and there were many, Ellison rates the 34th Cup a roaring success. “I think this has changed sailing forever,” he said. “More people watched the first race of this America’s Cup than watched all the America’s Cups in history, so I think it’s a success.”
The numbers weren’t off the charts, but they were impressive. An estimated 1 million spectators watched in person from around the bay during the 13 days of racing, although that’s half the number for which organizers planned. Another 1 million viewers watched each of the first two races broadcast on the weekend of Sept. 7 and 8 on NBC; after that, the subscriber-based NBC Sports Network drew an average of 165,000 viewers each day to the action. Figures from around the world weren’t in at press time, but in New Zealand — a nation of 4.4 million — an average 1 million viewers watched the Cup each day on television.
Ellison said the reason he and Coutts chose to race big catamarans and do it on San Francisco Bay was to offer audiences something a “bit more extreme,” a “bit more exciting,” a “bit more friendly for the viewing audience.” He believes he accomplished that.
“It made sailing accessible to a lot of fans for the first time,” he said, pointing out that he might even have converted some non-believers and drawn them into the sailing fold.
Considering the excitement that the AC72s generated and the direction that this regatta has taken the Cup — bringing it to Everyman, as part of Ellison’s and Coutts’ vision to grow the audience for sailing — “I think people have to agree: We pulled it off,” Turner says. “You couldn’t have scripted it any better. It was amazing.”
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Print magazine December 2013