Today’s race was no change from yesterday. Oracle Team USA got the jump at the start in Race 16 and was never headed. The Defender crept to within three points of staging one of the great comebacks in world sporting history.
Emirates Team New Zealand - Race 16
As yesterday, nothing has changed for the Challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand, who remain locked on Match Point.
Anguished New Zealand fans fall into two camps. Those who have been around competitive sailing for a while and realise that this is the way it is some times. Most wins are nerve wracking affairs, often decided at the death.
For non-sailing fans, and particularly the non-sailing Kiwi Media, this is how it is sometimes in sailing. You can be so close, but so far. It is a matter of having the discipline and strength of character to hang in there. Blame-storming doesn’t make the boat go faster.
A rowing truism is the Potential – Errors equals Performance, and is a good starting point for evaluating different teams and their strengths.
Currently both boats are very similar in Potential, but with different weaknesses. Oracle Team USA was making the Errors at the start of the regatta, Emirates Team NZ is making starting Errors in the latter stages of the regatta.
That is the simple difference.
Today's Error by Emirates Team NZ was hoisting the Code Zero before the start, in the belief that the wind was light enough to make it worthwhile on Leg 1. But that was not to be, and the additional drag from the furled sail was sufficient to allow Oracle Team USA to get foiling a few seconds sooner, which translated into a rare lead for the starboard entry boat at Mark 1. Oracle was never headed - and the speeds between the boats upwind and down were very comparable. The race was lost in the first 60 seconds, by one error.
The framing of this regatta has changed dramatically from six months or so ago. Emirates Team NZ was originally designed for the 5-33kt wind limit. That set the basic design options and the boats had to be able to sail in a 28knot range of wind. Today that range dropped to just 9.9kts or so.
Various decisions that were made after the Artemis incident saw the range drop to 18kts when the limits were set at 5-23kts.
Then it was decided to factor in the strength of the tidal current. At its most extreme that has dropped the wind limit down to just 19.9kts on one day, and below the 23 kts range for most of the second week.
Today, the decision was made by race officials that they would not start a race unless they were confident it would finish inside the 40 minute race time limit.
On the surface that sounds reasonable enough, but as we saw earlier the race time limit is very short, and in the Race Committee’s view is that a minimum strength seems to be 10kts.
(Sail-World’s calculations on Sunday, using Predictwind’s routing function came to a similar conclusion – but about 8-9kts minimum windspeed to complete the course inside the time limit.)
That is up from the 5kts minimum stated in the Protocol. The more usual practice is that if there is a wind above the minimum, and it is reasonably steady in direction, then the race is started and the progressive and total race time limits apply. No second-guessing by the race officials as to how long the race will take.
Often the wind will increase after the start and the whole subject becomes academic. Today's decision to delay the start was also effectively a decision that there would be only one race today - and that is not really a decision for officials to make. It's an outcome best decided by the Elements and the Sailors.
As we saw today, the 10kts limit is also right at the cut-over for Code Zero’s. Below that the big headsails are necessary. Above that they are at best marginal. And when Emirates Team NZ flew theirs and Oracle Team USA did not, there was no perceivable difference between having the big headsail and not having it.
Code Zero conditions are one area that Emirates Team NZ still had an advantage over the Defender, but with today’s wind strength decision, that advantage has been effectively wiped, and we probably won’t see those sails again in the regatta.
So now the wind band has been tightened further to be in the range of 10kts to 19.9kts in an ebb tide condition.
That’s just a 9.9kts range – when the Protocol originally called for a 28kt range. That is what Emirates Team NZ originally designed their boat to sail in, and has in fact been sailed in conditions more extreme than that.
At the start of the Louis Vuitton Cup, back in July, the Defender gained access to all the Challenger performance data. They also gained access to all the video shot for the public broadcast. That is a huge analysis benefit, particularly when the Challengers don’t have access to your video and performance data. That also allowed them to choreograph crew moves in the vital foiling gybes.
Come the start of the America’s Cup Match, the Defenders were clearly off the pace upwind, but seemed to have very good speed off the wind.
Again by studying video and the performance data, Oracle Team USA were able to effect changes – which they are quite entitled to do. And, for the first time in the Regatta (aside from two races in the Defender Series) Emirates Team NZ were able to see the Defender video and data.
So the long story short is that for whatever reason, these boats are now sailing a wind range of around 10kts instead of an initial 28kts. And they are also only sailing on a course when the wind is coming from a certain direction.
It is a fair bet that Oracle Team USA have worked this out, and have the ability to mode their boat for the narrow range of conditions that this regatta is now being sailed under.
Their low windage and low drag aero package is optimised for this range, and outside this range they are more vulnerable. But those edges have been eroded by decisions that have been made.
For the New Zealanders the only option seems to be less cautious at the start, getting their timed runs right, and hitting the line at top speed and being much more aggressive tactically. Their basic package has been designed for a wider range of conditions and can't be changed too much.
Today’s win by Oracle Team USA was decisive – maybe the turning point of the regatta, as they were able to break the psychological advantage of the port-tack entry which before today has produced the winner of six of the last seven races.
For a New Zealand sailing public, wondering why this Regatta has changed shape so dramatically, the above may provide some explanation if not solace.
For sure, the mountain ahead of the Kiwis is now just as steep as it is for Oracle Team USA.
The double irony of this regatta is that no matter who wins, this is the last time we will see an America’s Cup of this type.
If Emirates Team NZ win, and the nationality rule comes in, we will never again see a multi-national crew of the style in the Defender, compete in the next Cup, if ever.
And if Oracle Team USA win, few outside a very select circle of billionaires will be prepared to compete. Few will believe that any cost-cutting measures that will inevitably be spoken of at the end of this regatta will ever work, or that the Rules as envisaged a year or so out from the Match will be in force for the Regatta itself.
All those who have been on the water for this America’s Cup Match will often have enjoyed long and frequent moments of jaw-dropping wonderment at the sheer spectacle and awe of these magnificent yachts competing, and doing what they do best.
For a while during that day-dream, it doesn’t seem to matter which team wins – the spectacle is so breath-taking.
But then you snap-back into reality. Give your self an upper-cut, and start supporting your own team.
Enjoy it while you can – this type of event will be never seen again.