by Mark Bunzel
What were the odds that Oracle Team USA would come back from an 8-1 deficit in the America’s Cup finals? After Race 4, Las Vegas odds-makers said 700 to 1.
Undeterred, Oracle achieved the seemingly impossible and won the America’s Cup. They made their boat faster, got the boat better balanced, and ensured the crew performed optimally. A bit of psychological warfare helped, too!
Changes to the wing made the boat faster. They increased the leech, giving it more power on the upwind leg. This resulted inan increase in the maximum tension on the wing trim sheet from 1 ton to 1.7 tons. If you go back and watch the progression of the races on YouTube you can see the remarkable increase in speed in each successive race for OTUSA.
After each race, the shore-side team noticed the paint had boiled off the edges and surface of the small wings on the rudders. There was so much turbulence that the rudders started vibrating at 40 knots. At first, they just re-painted the rudders. Later they realized that the paint coming off was an indicator of the forces and drag on the rudder. The rudders were faired and the hard angles of T ended up with a stinger fore and aft to smooth the water flowing over the rudder. Computer simulations of the faired rudders showed an increase of 0.4 knots in boat speed.
Stingers on the rudders reduced drag.
Ramps were added to the back of the hulls to force the hulls up and out of the water onto the foils. The best sailing position was with the leeward hull just kissing the water. Team New Zealand, in contrast, rode high on its foils.
OTUSA began riding steady on its foils and the word got out that #17 had a special stability augmentation system. The system had been on the boat since the beginning, but its impact could be seen when the boat began riding more smoothly. Many favoring Team New Zealand thought this might be something against the rules, but it had been approved by the judges well before the series began. The system was fairly simple and still human powered, basically a hydraulic valve system where the pressure to actuate the trim for the foils went through a sensor powered by the grinders. AC 72 boats have no accumulator tanks for hydraulic pressure; when the system needs hydraulic pressure, the grinders grind.
The crew continued to improve. They stayed up on the foils for their tacks and gibes. With Ben Ainslie as tactician after Race 4, the combination of Spithill, Ainslie and Slingsby put incredible pressure on Team New Zealand. They started winning starts and leading legs, including the upwind leg, which in the first 6 races they were no match for Emirates New Zealand.
They also worked the psychological side of the battle. Even when down 8-1 Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s skipper, sat four feet away from Dean Barker in the daily post-race press conference and told the crowd, “I think we can win this thing…we like the position of the underdog.” When asked if he was concerned that he could be replaced as skipper, he responded with what will be his famous line, “I know full well that the rooster today could be tomorrows feather duster…”
Then in Race 17, Spithill got a late leeward hook in the pre-start, which forced Emirates Team New Zealand’s Dean Barker to stay clear. But the boats collided twice, with Oracle Team USA’s starboard hull hitting Emirates Team New Zealand’s port hull, and the Kiwis were penalized twice for failing to keep clear. Spithill clearly could have avoided the collision and there was much yelling from from the Oracle Team USA boat to the crew of Emirates Team New Zealand. Oracle Team USA played a tough psychological game and won. You could almost see it in the last race. Dean Barker and his team were no longer at their peak. Even they began to believe that, just maybe, Oracle Team USA would pull off one of the biggest upsets ever in sports history.
There were no silver bullets to this win, no secret black boxes. The argument that the team with the biggest budget wins does not hold up here either. While Oracle had what was rumored to be an endless budget, they came as close as one can to an embarrassing loss. In the end, the professionals all across Oracle Team USA kicked into gear with lots of small changes. They made it clear they had a winning attitude. They did not give up. Luck also played a part with the cancellation of one race where #17 was way behind due to low winds pushing the race beyond the time allowed in the rules. In the end Oracle Team USA enjoyed a difficult come-from-behind, historic win, and we got to see the most exciting sailing race ever.
Just consider, The 34th America’s Cup is the longest match in the history of the event at 19 days; four of the races rank in the top 10 for all-time closest finishes; the America’s Cup outright speed record of 47.57 knots (55 mph) was set by Emirates Team New Zealand. While Larry Ellison is often criticized for how he set the event and the races for the America’s Cup, this one goes in the record books and was spectacular to watch.
Missed watching the race? Each race is available as streaming video on YouTube complete Stan Honey’s Emmy Award winning AC Live graphics that show sailboat racing like it has never been shown before.