America's Cup - The Oxygen Masks have dropped from the ceiling
by . on 24 Sep 2013
America¡s Cup 2013 Oracle Team USA got the jump at both starts in Races 14 and 15, today, and crept two points closer to staging one of the great comebacks in world sporting history.
But nothing has changed for the Challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand, who remain locked on Match Point.
All last week, in response to questions as to whether they were down and out, Oracle Team USA skipper, Jimmy Spithill infuriated the international media by repeating the line that they only had to win one race at a time; that he was very excited by the challenge that was ahead of the team; and how positive and hard-working the team were.
Most couldn't work out if he was off his medication, or had overdosed.
Spithill's optimistic recital of the Oracle Team USA party line, now seems to have a lot more depth to it.
Certainly the teams fortunes have changed dramatically since the switch-out of tactician John Kostecki, and his replacement with celebrated Olympic Medalist, Ben Ainslie – whose combination with Tom Slingsby seems to grow by the day. The chemistry seems to be very good indeed.
Back in Auckland, the oxygen masks fell from the ceiling at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, as a smaller than usual crowd ran the full gambit of emotions, watching as their team trailed, pulled equal and then trailed again - in both races.
What has changed?
Probably not as much as the immediate results indicate.
For sure, Oracle Team USA have made changes to their boat.
At the Designer Forum last week, Oracle Team USA’s Dirk Kramers said they had made five key changes. But wouldn’t name them. His counterpart, Emirates Team NZ’s Nick Holroyd, could only pick three of the five, and in doing so let slip that both teams were working hard on their daggerboard systems. Oracle's mast rake was another point that Holroyd had picked up.
With the racing now occurring each day, and with one team on Match Point, Oracle Team USA effectively has little to lose by playing the bold moves, and buying all the time they can. You get the impression that Larry Ellison is now leading his team - not so much by direct input, but by being there, on the water, every day.
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An analysis of the racing, and indeed what was suspected to be Oracle’s game plan all along, seems to be a focus on winning the start, having good downwind speed (that being four legs of the five leg course) and then try and hold on upwind.
Oracle seemed to have made a mis-calculation in the opening days of the regatta when they looked to have traded off too much upwind speed, for the downwind gain. They had not factored in the New Zealander’s ability to be able to do foiling tacks and accelerate out of tacks very quickly.
Couple that with the effect of the incoming tide that prevailed for the first week, and Oracle had no answers. Even if they were ahead at the bottom of Leg 2, Emirates Team NZ could use the incoming tide to pull the Defender over to the City side of the course, initiate a tacking duel and work their way through to lead, by the mid-point of the course.
Watching from on-the-water it was just like watching a clock ticking down – it was only a matter of time before Emirates Team NZ broke through. You don’t see the continuity of what happens on television, due to the switching of the camera angle and the zoom shot, which distorts distances.
The one race Oracle did win, was when they rounded with a larger than normal lead, could afford to apply a loose cover, and avoided the need to engage with Emirates Team NZ.
That was Week 1.
Week 2, the tide changed, with the ebbing or outgoing tide allowing Oracle Team USA to sail the full width of the course, able to tack in their own time and avoid the tacking duels with Emirates Team NZ. With their two new tricks and a new tactician upping the ante in the afterguard, Oracle Team USA found a second wind, and a sail-bag full of self-belief.
This week, Week 3, the incoming tide is back – constraining the width of course able to be used. Now Oracle has two new tricks in their bag – being able to foil upwind – in the way that Emirates Team NZ were able to do with devastating effect in Week 1, and the already discussed foiling tacks. Maybe they are still not as slick in their crew-work as Emirates Team NZ, but certainly the gap has closed.
The advantage of the port hand entry into the start box is proving to be decisive.
In Week 1, this wasn’t quite such a factor, given that Emirates Team NZ had the ability to reel in any advantage that Oracle Team USA had, once both had turned the corner at Mark 2. And if the Kiwis led at that point they were just devastating.
In Week 2, we had the outgoing tide coming into play. This allowed the team with the port entry, (and early entry) to be able to get up-tide of their competitor and then control the start. This is done by one of two ways – sailing the shortest distance to Mark 1, getting the inside rights at the mark, and then going into Leg 2 with a lead of 40-80 metres. From there it is a matter of defending to the bottom of the course, and then covering up Leg 3.
The other strategy with the Port entry position is that it allows the leeward boat to elect not to sail the shortest course, but instead push up on the windward yacht, who must keep clear. There are a myriad of variations on this strategy, but Spithill’s favourite seems to be to sail high, outside the three boatlength circle, luff the Challenger towards the Golden Gate, and then pick your moment to bear off for Mark 2. Today he almost sailed Emirates Team NZ outside the windward start mark.
On TV you don’t see the subtly of this move, and the fact that the windward boat has no option but to follow. It is all about timing and acceleration. On the water it is just a matter of watching an inevitable outcome, as again the Port entry boat goes in with a lead of 40-80 metres at the first mark.
In Week 3, we are back to the Week 1 scenario with the incoming tide. It is coming into San Francisco Bay, and there is no push for the port entry boats to come up under the windward yacht. But still the options are to either take the shortest route to Mark 1; or to push the other starboard entry boat to windward. Either way the port entry boat will be first to Mark 1, unless they make a serious tactical or timing error.
Once the port tack entry boat has the lead it is not easily lost – with the old match racing truism applying – that it is easy to catch up but difficult to pass. In the first race today Barker closed, and actually got his bow ahead by 5 metres, but couldn't make it stick into a passing move.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Barker did find a counter to the Port entry advantage, by trying a timed start and sail over the top of Oracle Team USA. It worked – but the race was blown up because of wind limits – and the Oracle afterguard will not let that happen again.
Sure some media will quote numbers that the numbers are almost even for the port hand entry advantage, saying that only eight out of 15 races have been won by the port hander. But that ignores the upwind advantage that Emirates Team NZ enjoyed in the first week, and since that degree of edge no longer exists. Like much of what the non-sailing media say, the line is seriously flawed.
At this current level of competition, you can’t give your competitor a 40-80 metre lead going into the first downwind leg and expect to just fly past – unless a major tactical error is made on the next three legs. However with proper execution, that is the advantage that is handed to the port entry boat each race.
Tomorrow is another day, and despite the betting odds lining up Oracle’s way, in New Zealand – with some big bets now being placed. The beneficiary of that activity will be Yachting New Zealand, who get a modest percentage of the money 'invested'.
Tomorrow would seem to be a make or break day for the New Zealanders. As we saw so often in the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series sailed in the IACC yachts in 2007-2010 era, the Kiwi team seem to be very adept at pulling off last-gasp series wins, when all seemed to be lost.
Their fans will be hoping for a repeat of that form, but could probably do without the preliminaries.