Dramatic Comeback Leads USA to Victory

Juliet Miller and Margaret Ross, Staff Writers

Oracle Team USA waves to the crowd after their historic comeback over New Zealand in the San Francisco Bay.

Oracle Team USA dominated the America’s Cup, the oldest competition in international sport, over Emirates Team New Zealand 9-8.
The 34th America’s Cup, a tri-annual sailing match between the Louis Vuitton Cup Champion and the defending America’s Cup Champion, took place in the San Francisco Bay from Sept. 7-25.
In a first-to-nine-points series, Louis Vuitton Champion Emirates won the first three matches, and defending America’s Cup Champion Oracle took the fourth. Emirates came back to win the fifth, sixth, and seventh, followed by two more for Oracle, and the 10th and 11th by Emirates. Oracle fought back to protect the trophy by dominating the next seven races, and bringing the Cup to a tie after the 18th race.
In the tie-breaking match, Oracle launched ahead from the first turn, accumulating a 500-meter lead in the upwind leg. Oracle gained the conclusive win in the 19th match by 44 seconds.
Oracle was penalized at the beginning of the event by the International Jury for having an out-of-specification keel which caused an unfair and illegal advantage. Members of the Oracle crew got away with adding a few extra pounds to a central structure on the boat. Oracle won the races, but a protest was filed that led to penalizations for Oracle. Although the majority of the crew was unaware of the alterations, one team member was removed, one temporarily suspended, one issued a warning, and the entire team was fined $250,000 and docked two points.
“It is not un-common for sailors to be banned for misconduct or bad sportsmanship of some kind. But it is the first time it has happened in the America’s Cup. The points penalty is unprecedented and took a lot of us by surprise. To me, it was a harsh penalty,” Head Coach Andrew Palfrey of Artemis Racing said.
This past May, Artemis suffered the tragic loss of one of their key crew members when a boat capsized and was destroyed while practicing. This tragedy, as well as the damage done to the boat, all but eliminated their hope of the Louis Vuitton Cup, and competing against Oracle in the America’s Cup.
After the fifth race, Oracle used its only “postponement card” to put off the second race of the day until the following Thursday. Oracle Skipper Jimmy Spithill admitted that his crew needed to regroup and work on the upwind portions to regain the advantage. Despite the two-point disadvantage and rough start, Spithill led his crew through the competition. Spithill’s leadership played a crucial role in the eventual victory.
The Bay’s powerful wind caused one-day delays after the fifth, eighth, 11th, 12th, and 13th races. The 13th race was later abandoned because it exceed the 40-minute time limit.
The race course consisted of upwind and downwind turns in the southernmost part of the Bay between Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge. “San Francisco Bay is renowned for its strong winds and currents. They remain the key factors to deal with,” Palfrey said.
Emirates had the more practical and efficient strategy, although their budget was incomparable to that of Oracle. Oracle was more scientifically focused, by numerically analyzing the physics of the sport, as opposed to Emirates’ reliance on practice and honing the crew’s skills.
“Though Emirates may have had an advantage over Oracle during the first few matches, since they had been racing all summer, Oracle quickly caught up and the teams were evenly matched. The skill of the two skippers, Barker for Emirates and Spithill for Oracle, was demonstrated through their well placed tacks. The talent of the tacticians was shown through their mastery of the currents and wild wind,” Marie Johnson ‘15 said, who attended multiple races, including one aboard the Sperry Topsider private yacht. Johnson and her friends won an excursion on the bay through an Instagram giveaway.
This year’s Cup brings a new body design with hard-wing sails. Also new this year are the hydro-foils, where all seven tonnes of boat and crew are suspended above the water by a surfboard-sized piece of carbon-fibre. The boats, AC72s, priced between $8 and $10 million, sail at an average speed of 50 mph.
The most common error goes back to decisions made months before the match. Both teams were strongly driven and made few mistakes, but Oracle’s problem was a lack of initial strategy.
Of the teams in this year’s America’s Cup, only Oracle is returning from the 2010 Cup. About 75 percent of the crew came back from that match. The Emirates team is still comprised of a good amount of returning crew members from the 2007 Cup, where they lost to the Swiss by three points.