How the America’s Cup Defender Got Into Their Hole

Published on September 11th, 2013

By Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt
Picture this… you just lost the fifth race in the America’s Cup by a huge margin. You were leading, heck, you were in control. You had a great start, you looked fast downwind, but then fumbled the ball. Big time.

Your team made a tactical mistake that all the commentators pointed out, and you have a boat speed deficit that $100+ million and all the experts from the 90-foot ‘Dogzilla’ campaign can’t solve. Worse yet, you use the “we need to regroup” card and postpone the next race.

All you want to do is go back to the base, look at your 130 member team, and say ‘WTF’. But no, you are required to go to the press conference. You are confronted by a room of people that somehow got media credentials, and despite others being on the dais, nearly every question is for you.

“Jimmy Spithill, THIS Is Your Life”

To his credit, Jimmy survived the grilling, but he was clearly taking bullets meant for other targets. Strategic missteps, compounded by meager upwind boat performance, are holding back the American team. After five races, here are the key moments:

Race 1: After NZL led at mark one, USA stayed close on the run to trail by 4 seconds at the leeward gate. USA gained the lead on the first cross, and for the first half of the upwind leg, USA managed the course well to remain in control. However, on the second half of the beat, USA gave NZL too much leverage and paid for it. NZL win by 36 seconds.

Race 2: An aggressive move by USA at the start put them behind, but they stayed close on the run to trail by 6 seconds at the leeward gate. Good course management by NZL, aided by conservative upwind tactics by USA, kept NZL ahead to win by 52 seconds.

Race 3: USA leads at mark one, extends on downwind leg to be ahead by 17 seconds at leeward gate. NZL rounds opposite gate, and with USA loose covering, made small gains in the first half of beat with better tidal strategy, and then outsmarted USA along the City Front boundary to pass and win by 28 seconds.

Race 4: USA lead at mark one, and after a solid run, give nearly all of it away by a poor approach to the leeward gate. NZL rounded 5 seconds behind at same gate, but USA sailed masterful beat to extend for good and win by 7 seconds.

Race 5: USA leads at mark one, and sailed a flawless and fast downwind leg to lead by 8 seconds at leeward inshore gate. USA tacks to port around mark to seek tidal relief under Alcatraz island, but loses most of their lead in the maneuver. NZL carries speed around mark, gaining leverage before tacking on USA hip. NZL masters the upwind leg better to pass and win by 1:04 seconds.

Despite the American team leading in four of the five races, the Kiwis now hold four wins to only one for USA. “There have been lead changes on a course where I don’t think there necessarily should be that many lead changes,” noted Iain Percy, 2-time Olympic medalist and skipper of the challenger Artemis Racing. “It is a tough place to be behind here in San Francisco Bay, especially in a flood tide. Your strategy is quite defined by the venue due to the tidal streams.”

The American team strategically used their “postponement card” on Tuesday to delay race six and make changes before Thursday. Will changes include the afterguard? Look for 5-time Olympic medalist Ben Ainslie (GBR), who trained with the team on Wednesday,  to take over as tactician from John Kostecki (USA).

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