The final race for today was a break-point for the 34th America’s Cup.
Had Oracle Team USA been able to pull off a second victory for the day, giving herself a hat-trick of wins from the past two days – then she would have gone into the one-day break feeling very satisfied.
The Defender would have knocked a huge hole in the Kiwi machine, which looked unstoppable at the start of the Regatta.
For New Zealand the point was crucial – leaving the Challenger with just two more to score to win the America’s Cup for a third time.
With so much hanging on the win, it was fitting that it was a closely fought affair – and a match racing spectacle the likes of which had never been seen before.
The highpoint of the race came as the two AC72’s neared the windward mark and it became clear that Oracle Team USA had bitten a massive chunk out of the New Zealander’s lead, and in fact the lead swapped several times.
But in a brilliant piece of sailing strategy, Emirates Team New Zealand spent some of their lead on the windward leg to buy a big advantage heading down the final run, on Leg 4.
Their investment paid a huge dividend, as they were able to round the northern Mark 3, and emerge from the rounding at a faster pace and sailing on starboard, with the right of way at the next encounter.
That came a few hundred metres down the run as Oracle Team USA came across on port, and had the choice of gybing and going with the flying Kiwis, or crossing astern and then having the starboard advantage at the next cross.
They elected to take the latter option, slowing the boat to allow the New Zealanders through. But applying the brakes on a speeding AC72 has not really been done before – and too much speed was dropped off, allowing the New Zealanders to quickly grab a bigger lead, which they held to the end of the exciting race.
There is no doubt that the Oracle Team USA afterguard is a much better unit with the addition of Ben Ainslie. The team has also been able to use the time they bought by playing their Lay Day card, after a thumping from the New Zealanders, when they notched their sixth win. Oracle have been able to bolster their weak points to the extent that there is not a lot between the boats in terms of basic speed.
One gets the impression that the New Zealanders still have the upper hand in terms of time on the water. And the thinking on board the Kiwi boat is generally better than that of the Defender.
But in the past two days New Zealand has been put under real pressure, sometimes they have been able to come up with the answers, sometimes not.
In the first two wins scored by Oracle Team USA, the Challengers pointed out that the first was the result of two muffed tacks by the Challenger, and the second was the same – when the AC72 almost capsized in a tack.
But there was no such excuse in Oracle Team USA’s Race 9 win – which came from being able to exploit their port entry right to the starting box, defending the eastern side of the box, and using the ebb (outgoing) tide to push up against the Challenger. Spithill pulled a masterful tactic at the start of luffing after the starting signal, causing Barker to drop speed, then Spithill picked his moment to accelerate and build a lead at the first mark which he was able to extend to 800 metres over the rest of the race.
The change in tide has certainly worked Oracle Team USA’s way, allowing her more time to plan her moves, using the full width of the race area, instead of being pinned into sailing in a smaller area of water to avoid adverse tide.
That allows her to tack in her own time, and we are not seeing the same damage that Emirates Team NZ was able to inflict in a tight tacking situation, and using her self-tacking jib to maximum effect.
Once again, as we saw at the top mark this afternoon, Emirates Team NZ does seem to enjoy a small advantage in tight combat – possibly because tactician Ray Davies can have his head up – without grinding duties – and has those few seconds to think of the longer term plays.
Certainly Ray Davies’ calls have been a feature of the regatta, and may well prove to be the winning of it.
After today, Emirates Team NZ needs two wins to take the Regatta. Oracle requires another eight – which looks to be a difficult task in boats that are evenly matched.
For sure this has been a Match Racing regatta like the sailing world has never before seen – and may never do so again.
And for many the sheer spectacle of seeing two AC72’s foiling downwind in white water is more memorable than the actual outcome of the Match itself.
There is no doubt that this regatta has delivered some brilliant and sublime racing – that can only be marveled, and appreciated by all who follow our great sport.
While Larry Ellison was on the water to enjoy his team's success in the first race of the day. He must have also taken a special pleasure in knowing that his dream of which he spoke of so eloquently back in 2010 had come true - and made such a massive impact on sailing - which will never be the same again.
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