Six months after the conclusion of the 34th America's Cup, Kiwi fans in particular, struggle for the answers as to how Oracle Team USA were able to effect a big performance turnaround, without precedent in an America's Cup regatta. Sail-World's NZ and America's Cup Editor, Richard Gladwell gives his personal perspective and analysis in this three part-series.
Gladwell was on the water for the first eight races days of the Match, flying home on Race Day 8, September 18, which also proved to be the last day on which Emirates Team NZ won a race. For Part 1 click here and Part 2 click here and now read Part 3:
Oracle Team USA’s move to replace out of form tactician, John Kostecki, with four times Olympic Gold medalists, Ben Ainslie (GBR) proved to be a master stroke, and another bold move from the Defender.
The afterguard replacement scenario has never worked before in an America’s Cup and is generally a recipe for total collapse. The only exception was almost 40 years ago when Jack Sutphen was replaced on Courageous in back in 1974 in the US Defence Trials phase. He was replaced as a starting helmsman with a then young Dennis Conner. The change worked and Courageous went on to be selected and successfully won against Australia’s Southern Cross.
The Kiwis made an afterguard replacement in the 1992 Louis Vuitton Cup when Rod Davis and David Barnes were replaced by Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth mid series in an effort to halt a losing streak. It didn’t work.
In hindsight no-one could question the pedigree of those two replacements – underscoring the bold move by Oracle Team USA, even if the risk was bringing in someone of the skill of four times Olympic Gold medalist, Ben Ainslie. His break-in period was just a few laps of San Francisco Bay, wearing former tactician John Kostecki’s lifejacket.
Many make the mistake of applying a Rugby analogy to Yachting, and believe that replacing a team member, when they are off form, will turn a situation around. Impact players don’t often work in sailing. But the Ainslie/Slingsby/Spithill combination clicked in a couple of races, and their confidence built from there.
Emirates Team NZ had no such luxury with replacements – even if they had wanted to replace skipper Dean Barker. Their only option was to move wingsail trimmer Glenn Ashby into the helmsman’s slot – which they tried in one race in the Louis Vuitton Cup. But moving Ashby out of the wing trimmer’s role just created a need for double crew change within the squad.
'We don't have the budget to employ two helmsmen, two wing trimmers, two tacticians, and in the respect we are a bit exposed,' skipper Dean Barker told Sail-World in early February 2013 when questioned on how the Emirates Team NZ would cope with crew injury and rotation without affecting performance.
For sure, Emirates Team New Zealand made some basic errors.
Tactically they were very good in the first half of the regatta, but when Oracle applied the pressure in the second half, the Kiwis made mistakes. On balance their moments of brilliance in the first week balanced up the errors in the last. Oracle was tactically dreadful in the first week of the regatta, and very good in the final couple of weeks.
The mistake made by both teams was to apply normal keelboat match racing tactics to a multihull match racing situation. Oracle worked this one out about the time that Ben Ainslie stepped aboard, and Oracle adopted a smoother more calculating strategy approach.
Emirates Team NZ, had very innovative tactical responses and strategies in the first week or so, aided by a boat speed edge upwind, which always helps tactical brilliance, but in the second and third weeks the Kiwis took some wrong options under pressure, which were exploited mercilessly by Oracle.
The Kiwi’s inability to deal with the Rules Creep was typified by the second running of Race 13, when Emirates Team NZ was caught short by the 40 minute time limit.
Unusually for yacht racing, the America’s Cup was held over a fixed length course with a set time limit for completion. In racing at Olympic and World Championship level the race committee will have some option to shorten the race course if a race is threatened by a time limit. The rationale being that it is a hard call to take a win away from a boat on a technicality, unless the wind dies completely before the race finishes.
The lower wind limit of 5kts set for the racing in San Francisco was standard at top levels of the sport.
The fact that the boats could not complete the course in this wind strength, within prescribed the time limit, caught most pundits by surprise.
Oracle Team USA seemed to be well aware of the constraint at the time of the race start. Emirates Team NZ only started discussing it, as an on board issue, five minutes before the race end.
It is difficult to believe that Emirates Team NZ were unaware of the farcical time situation, but did nothing publicly to highlight the inequity in the wind limits.
Combined with the effective bottom wind limit of 10kts, and the tide adjusted upper limit of around 20kts – the AC72’s were now racing in a band of just 10kts, in the second week. Remember, the original Protocol called initially for a band of 28kts.
Oracle, as we have earlier noted seemed to be optimized for the 10-20kts band. Few options for change
What can a team do about such a shift in Match Conditions - which crept in for a variety of reasons, some of them good, others were just convenient?
Recourse to the International Jury is one option. The problem being that to go down that path you have to have a very carefully constructed case which fits within certain parameters. Outside that it is very hard to get the Jury complaint even heard, let alone won.
The Protocol, once signed off between the Defender and Challenger of Record, could only be changed with a majority vote, in terms of racing conditions, and with the Challenger of Record and the Defender, having a separate right of veto over any change.
The point of the Team New Zealand complaint to the International Jury over the Protocol votes being exercised by teams competing in just the America’s Cup World Series, was to prevent those teams having a say in an event in which they were not going to compete. With the teams cut to just four, for voting purposes – the Protocol was effectively frozen in terms changes to racing conditions, such as wind limits – which could only be changed by a majority or unanimous decision – and assuming that neither Artemis Racing or Oracle Team USA did not exercise their Veto. Changes to AC72 class rules could only be changed with by unanimous decision of all teams.
That voting dynamic meant there was little chance of making Sailing Rule changes except on safety grounds, and Class Rule changes were even more difficult.
Oracle had a very adept media machine and network, which was deployed virtually at will, and whenever they wanted to get their message across outside of the confines of the Jury Room.
The US team had developed this ability right through the 2007-2010 legal saga played out in the New York Supreme Court, and used it with devastating effect to keep Alinghi on the back foot for most of the three years.
Peter Blake, Team New Zealand (Winner, 1995-2000 America’s Cups) -
In 2010-2013, it was used to depict those who opposed the Defender’s views as whining and complaining. Eventually the whinging allegations had resonance, and the Challengers, particularly Emirates Team NZ, began to hold back – as the constant complaints about the event conditions reflected badly on the team and their sponsors.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the issues go away. They just go unchallenged – with devastating later effect. That is the intention of the whispering campaign and resultant Rules Creep.
Warren Jones, made an art form of running media interference in the 1983 Australia II campaign, and was largely responsible for getting the New York Yacht Club on the back foot and keeping them there through the Winged Keel saga.
Team New Zealand has really lacked this capability since the departure of PR man, Peter Debreceny during the 1988 Big Boat campaign. Of course, in the Peter Blake era, there was his unique style. Blake was the master of the media, and could raise all sorts of questions with some choice words and quizzical look.
Since Blake left the New Zealand team, the team has really lacked the capability to mount a whispering campaign on a vital issue – which soon gets picked up by various media, who can usually spring a surprise broadside on the team’s target.
Team New Zealand don’t help themselves with a very insular approach to the wider international media. Oracle on the other hand are very adept at working the same group, quickly and at will, to form opinion, which invariably has the other side wearing the black hats – and the job is done.
Team Managing Director, Grant Dalton, quickly picked up the moniker 'Grumpy Grant', and once that impression stuck, the team’s options to control the America’s Cup game inside and outside the Jury Room became quite limited.
The effective 10kt wind limit is an excellent example of a story that could have been beaten up by Emirates Team NZ in the international media.
Not being able to complete the course in under 10kts of wind is a ridiculous situation, and one in which the general sports media could quickly understand and run with.
Regatta Officials would have been forced to defend the indefensible, and a change is the likely result. In this situation, the Challenger has to do little except watch the action, pick up the eventual gain, and look brilliant to boot.
As it turned out 10kts of breeze was a vital point in the racing, as it was the windstrength when the AC72’s could dispense with the Code Zero foresails, and remove the bowsprits needed to fly them. Oracle was onto this issue early - saving weight and not having to trade-off some aspect of their performance to have a more competitive boat below the now 10kt effective wind limit. A pointless inquiry
After the America’s Cup defeat many called, in New Zealand, for an inquiry into the Team New Zealand 'loss'.
A team can’t run an open review after an America’s Cup campaign. It is just setting the team up to fail in the next Cup cycle. An internal review was done by Team New Zealand after the 2003 America’s Cup loss, and made public, but that was mostly a public relations exercise. All the media wanted was someone to blame - and they got it.
The outcome of an internal inquiry can’t be kept secret. Disaffected team members get access, other competitors and teams will get hold of it in some way - and either leak it, or use it for their own ends.
What follows is that there is more media arson, by way of another whispering campaign. Or, it is fed to new sponsors, in a competitive market, thus cutting off the money supply, as the team struggles to rebuild without a billionaire backer.
Holding an inquiry may seem a perfectly logical path to take in the bureaucratic world, but it is the wrong one in the America's Cup context.
For sure an internal debrief, has to be conducted where everyone is totally honest, but objective, and where every item of the campaign is gone over to look at what went wrong what was right what is relevant to improve for the next time. Whether the top team members are open to this sort of exercise remains to be seen. But it has to take place.
Going forward the Team New Zealand has to have to have a very clear and unified understanding of where they succeeded and failed. Dalton under the pump
Grant Dalton’s role on the New Zealand boat was mocked before the 34th America's cup by Oracles Team USA's CEO Russell Coutts, and was questioned after the event by many in the media and others. Ironically during the regatta the same media were calling for him to be on the boat, as he was perceived as a talisman – with the Kiwi team scoring wins, when Dalton was on board.
The point that is missed is that while Dalton may not have been the match of others physically, he did add to the chemistry of the boat, from a seamanship perspective.
One of the early lessons of the AC72 was that it was very easy to push the boats too hard, and go over the edge.
Oracle lost their first boat purely through poor seamanship. Those are not lessons you pick up on an erg machine, or through Olympic sailing – but through doing the high-speed ocean miles, and developing that innate sixth sense that all is not right – and knowing where to look.
Equally that same sense tells you how much harder you can push when all the strain gauge alarms are sounding.
It is easy to downplay the seamanship aspect, but coupled with a forgiving boat design such as Team NZ’s AC72, it enables the boats to be driven your boat fast in extreme conditions and not crash. Or, if you do crash - you can just bounce out and keep going, as Team NZ did in the nosedive mark rounding in the Louis Vuitton Cup.
For sure Dalton could have been replaced with someone that has a better erg score, but his seamanship skills were essential on the boat. Glenn Ashby had a different set of skills, understanding the need to press the catamaran harder as it was safer, than back off.
The advantage of having the MD/CEO on the boat is that he has a first hand view of what is happening - not what he sees remotely or is told by the crew. Blake was aboard in the 1995 Cup and that was credited as being one of the success factors of that campaign.
The issue in the multihull America’s Cup is that the boat and whole game has become too complex for one person to be in control – be that a Grant Dalton sailor/management type or a Billionaire backer and manager. Oracle better organized?
From an organizational approach Oracle Team USA seemed to have the better structure, and one that could be pulled together to use the time available, and to focus on the most profitable directions in terms of performance development.
Maybe that was a function of their size – being the biggest team – and a Team NZ style of structure just would not have worked for Oracle Team USA’s organization.
Oracle had some very astute management – with very good people in key places, who appeared to remain in position during a time of stress and crisis.
Key people to watch were Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts on the water. There was never a hint of either breaking ranks, as other Challenger management have done in the past – which has only had the effect of rattling an already shaken crew.
Ellison was only present at the final media conference. Coutts was not there at all.
But for all its nuances and spectacle the 34th America’s Cup was won for the same as all its predecessors – they developed the fastest boat in the time available.
That was not the case at the start of the 34th Match and Oracle Team USA were handed extra time when they needed it. They made bold calls and used their time and opportunity well to achieve an impossible win.
But the simple point remains that with normal wind limits applying, the regatta would have been over earlier and probably with a different outcome.
'Is America's Cup 35 really winnable?' is the question that must be answered by every serious Challenger, against the backdrop of the 34th America's Cup.