SAN FRANCISCO — Beaten again, James Spithill, the hard-driving skipper for Oracle Team USA, stood on his team’s catamaran Wednesday — with rough water and the Bay Bridge for a backdrop — and answered questions through a headset.
John G. Mabanglo/European Pressphoto Agency
“It’s not over; it’s a long way from over,” Spithill said.
That seemed much closer to bravado than to reality, with Emirates Team New Zealand needing only one more victory to dispossess Oracle of the America’s Cup and with Race 12 just about to begin.
But there are other forces at work in San Francisco Bay beyond crew work and technology worthy of nearby Silicon Valley. There are the wind limits put in place in the wake of the sailor Andrew Simpson’s accidental death in May. Those wind limits canceled both scheduled races Tuesday, then forced the second race to be postponed Wednesday with the big yachts already jousting for position and heading for the starting line.
No, the America’s Cup is still not over, even though it now seems only a matter of when, not if, the Kiwis will finish off Spithill and his multinational crew and their billionaire owner, Larry Ellison.
Wednesday’s postponement came after Team New Zealand had won the day’s first race by 15 seconds to take an 8-1 lead in the Cup. The hundreds of New Zealanders gathered on shore at America’s Cup Park and perhaps as many as a million more watching back home on morning television were poised for a celebration that has been a decade in the making for the nation of 4.4 million.
Now the Kiwis must wait until at least Thursday, when two more races are scheduled, either of which could be the final race.
“We can’t sit back and try to play it safe,” said Ray Davies, Team New Zealand’s tactician. “We’ve got to sail every race as best we can and push the boat really, really hard. You really notice it. As soon as you back off a little bit on these boats and try to go a bit conservative, your leads can get chopped down really quick.”
Davies and the Kiwis balanced risk and reward quite nicely in Wednesday’s first race, taking advantage of their favored port entry in the strong ebb tide that has complicated this week’s racing and also made the wind limits even lower.
Team New Zealand had the lead at the starting line, and then, with the two boats overlapped, used its right of way to force Oracle to drop speed. It then sailed away with a clear lead that was three seconds at the first mark.
But these AC72s, capable of hydro-foiling and hitting speeds well over 40 knots, are remarkably close in performance at this stage, and Oracle remained in close touch on the downwind leg. Team New Zealand’s lead was only six seconds at the second rounding mark, and Oracle even took the lead briefly on the upwind leg that followed.
But the Kiwis controlled the top of that leg beautifully. A mediocre tack from Oracle contributed to significant separation and a 17-second lead at the third mark. The gap grew bigger until Oracle, sailing alone and close to the boundaries of the course, began to make serious gains downwind.
But Davies and his team were thinking big picture, trying to avoid extra jibes that could have slowed their own progress. Spithill and the two Olympic gold medalists in his afterguard — Tom Slingsby and Ben Ainslie — could never conjure a way to get back in front, as the Kiwis, responding with just a hint of desperation, held them off and rounded with an 18-second lead before closing out their latest hard-fought victory.
“To have, in the first generation of the class, two boats that are this close in performance over a wide variety of conditions is quite unbelievable,” said Dean Barker, Team New Zealand’s understated skipper. “I think both teams have reacted very well to what they’ve observed of the other team, and I think the boats have just come together in terms of performance.”
But though the races have become tight and compelling, the gap in the standings keeps increasing. Team New Zealand has won eight races to Oracle’s three, but because of a two-race penalty imposed on Oracle for cheating before the Cup match began, the official score is 8-1.
“Look, we’ve got a hell of a battle on our hands here, but stranger things have happened in sport,” Spithill said. “I’ve witnessed some pretty big comebacks.”
There is no precedent for a comeback of this magnitude in the America’s Cup, which dates to 1851. And the prospect of losing the Cup hardly seems to have San Franciscans up in arms, clamoring for more speed from Oracle Team USA, a team that has only one American in its starting crew of 11.
“I’d love to see the Kiwis, the little underdogs, that tiny little country that has more sheep than people, take down Larry Ellison,” said Mike Altman, a 35-year-old American from San Francisco who was following the racing from America’s Cup Park on Wednesday.
Altman added: “Larry’s got a big ego, and you know I feel like he’s not necessarily the most well-liked business leader around the area. He hasn’t made a lot of friends. He’s known as pretty brash. A lot of people see this as his own personal party, his own little ego trip, and it’s not something that I think a lot of people were clamoring for, to have an America’s Cup here.”
Now it is likely to soon be gone, possibly never to return. In 162 years of the Cup, only eight sites have staged the races. One of them was Auckland, New Zealand, in 2000 and 2003.
No matter what Spithill says into his headset, a return visit looks imminent.