Jobson's AC34 Notes

Note 17: SHOWDOWN!

By Gary Jobson, President
National Sailing Hall of Fame

September 24, 2013

Sept. 24: OTUSA ties it up. Photo credit: Gilles Martin-Raget. ©ACEA The 34th America's Cup defense has turned into more of a people show than a boat show. Sure, the boats are amazingly fast, technological marvels, but the emotional highs and lows that we are feeling while watching and listening to the sailors compete is the epitome of human drama. How could anyone write a script for such a compelling narrative?

Think about these story lines: The America's Cup has been won and lost by the most successful business leaders of their eras. This is the oldest continuously contested trophy in international sports, dating back to 1851. The score is tied at 8-8. We are down to one, 30-minute race around a 10-mile course, off the city front of San Francisco. A tiny, sailing-crazed nation, with a home-grown crew, is up against one of the wealthiest men in the world, who has acquired the services of Olympic champions and superstars from seven nations. New Zealand has been one race from winning the Cup for a week, while Oracle Team USA has felt the pressure of being on the brink of defeat for seven races in a row. Tomorrow, one team will be heroes; the other will be hurting for a long time.

Today, on the 18th day of the Cup, we saw two very different races. In the first contest, the Australian skipper of the American boat, James Spithill, forced the New Zealanders into irons at the start. This is the equivalent of a football player fumbling the ball in his own end zone and the other team recovering it for a touchdown. USA 17 jumped to a comfortable lead. After the start, the boats seemed fairly even in speed in 15-18 knots of wind. With another American victory the score stood at 8-7, with ETNZ still leading the series. After the race, the Kiwi skipper, Dean Barker, sounded determined to get right back on the racecourse.

Race Two commenced on-schedule. At the start, both boats hit the line at the same time. USA 17 was to windward. Could they drive over the top of NZL? Barker was in the better inside position and luffed Spithill at the first turning mark. Downwind, USA 17 gained a length or two. There wasn't much difference in speed between the AC 72s. Both cats streaked down the course at 41 knots. About one-half mile from the leeward gate, USA 17 jibed. Inexplicably, NZL continued on. The leading boat should always cover by staying between the competitor and the next mark. The American boat was working to set up a split at the gate to sail on a different course than the Kiwis. Had NZL jibed with USA 17 they would have stayed in phase. Then USA 17 would have been forced to make two jibes to get the split. In contrast during previous races, OTUSA's tactician, Great Britain's Ben Ainslie, covered closely when they were ahead on Leg Two.

On the third leg to windward, USA 17 inched up under the lee of Alcatraz Island. I wonder if the prisoners in the 1930s would have been able to watch the Cup races had they taken place on the Bay at that time? NZL tacked over. They were crossing by about three lengths. NZL's tactician, Ray Davies, called for a tack ahead but to leeward of USA 17. At that moment, Spithill headed down a few degrees, got his boat foiling and sailed right over NZL. The Kiwis were stunned. When USA 17 tacked back into the center of course, NZL followed immediately. NZL could have extended a few more lengths and that might have helped them keep their wind clear. It is never tidy when a faster boat passes a slower boat. At that moment USA 17 took off and sailed away from NZL at an astonishing rate. It reminds me of the philosophy of boxer Mike Tyson, who said, "Every opponent has a plan until I punch them in the nose." The crew of Emirates Team New Zealand looked as if Tyson had landed one of his punishing left hooks. USA 17 crossed the line in triumph. The American team had tied the score at 8 to 8.

Sept. 24: Larry Ellison applauds his team. Photocredit: Gilles Martin-Raget ©ACEA After the race, I think Jimmy Spithill was ready to sail the finale right then. His crew looked super-happy. Over on NZL it was total devastation. Neither Dean Barker, Ray Davies, or syndicate head Grant Dalton were up to doing a post-race interview from the boat. Their faces told the story. Their boat and crew were no longer the dominant team they were for the first eleven days of this historic match.

On August 28 I predicted in my AC Report # 5 that “Oracle Team USA would defend....barely.” Little did I know at the time that their wing trimmer would be disqualified from competition for illegally altering the team's AC 45s last year. Nor did I know that USA 17 would be so slow compared to New Zealand on the opening weekend. Nor did I realize how Oracle could make such a comeback. An old saying defined the American team, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

After each losing day, Jimmy Spithill would boldly declare, "We can win races." The press corps was incredulous. He made his statements with such over-the-top conviction that it made you wonder if maybe he was right. It reminds me of the great football quarterback Joe Namath's bold guarantee that the upstart American Football League, the New York Jets, would defeat the mighty Baltimore Colts. The Jets won 16-7. Namath has been a hero ever since.

Spithill must have known that his design team and shore crew had many experiments that might give the boat additional speed. The big secret around here is what did OTUSA do to improve their speed? I believe it is a combination of many little things. Eventually we will know. After every America's Cup, designers and engineers present papers on their research and innovations. I bet we’ll see volumes of material published over the next few years. The secret of the USA turnaround is the designers.

Sept25. Battle on the water. Photocredit: Gilles Martin-Raget. ©ACEA. BUT!

The America's Cup is not over. We have one more race. OTUSA has won ten times. They only have eight points because two were taken away for their rules infractions. New Zealand has won eight races, but was ahead in three other races that were abandoned for either too much wind, or too little. The weather let the Kiwis down just as they were close to securing their ninth victory. Mother nature can be cruel.

Sports are compelling because we can never really know the outcome. That is why these races are so much fun to watch. To be the only journalist commentating in the middle of racecourse is quite a privilege. I have never watched or sailed in such a hard-fought battle.

After the race today, I was talking with my co-commentator Todd Harris and our producer, Leon Sefton. My cell phone rang. On the other end of the line was Ted Turner. He was in Atlanta and has been watching all the races. He sounded excited and was very complementary about our television coverage. Ted is one of the greatest sailors of our time. He has won the America's Cup, was a four-time Yachtsman of the Year, is a member of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, and is one of the most successful television visionaries in the world. Ted, like so many other sailors and non-sailors alike, has been riveted by this America's Cup. I am sure he will be watching tomorrow.

Todd Harris, Ken Read and I will do our best to let the pictures play, and the words of the competitors tell the story as we describe the biggest sailboat race of this century. Tune in at 4pm ET (1 pm PT) to the NBC Sports Network.

Most everyone here in San Francisco believes Oracle Team USA has the America's Cup being re-bolted to its pedestal. If Oracle prevails they will complete an amazing turn around. If New Zealand finds a way to win, it will be an even bigger turn around. As the legendary Al Michaels once asked while calling a hockey game during the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, "Do you believe in miracles?" At this point it might take a miracle for the proud New Zealanders to win, but are you sure they won't? You better watch, because America's Cup history will be written tomorrow.

Photos courtesy of and © ACEA - Photo Credit: Gilles Martin-Raget.

Note 16: Answering the Challenge

By Gary Jobson, President
National Sailing Hall of Fame

September 23, 2013

16-Code-Zeroes-Sept-23-2013. Photo Credit. R. Steven Tsuchiya. President Bill Clinton had a great expression when meeting people with troubles. He always connected by saying, "I feel your pain." To paraphrase Mr. Clinton, "We are feeling Emirate Team New Zealand's pain." The fading, near-winners of the America's Cup just don't seem to have an answer for the remarkable comeback by Oracle Team USA. The Kiwis have canceled victory celebrations, a charter flight to Auckland and said goodbye to many fans who have patiently waited for the big win. This could be the biggest collapse in the history of the America's Cup. Just five days ago, ETNZ was up 8-1, but now the score is 8-6. The USA has won five straight, and are getting faster and better with each race. What can the Kiwis do?

First a quick review of the performance differences between NZL and USA 17. At the start of Race 16 today, both boats were exactly 0.5 seconds behind the starting line, according to the AC LiveLine data. In 12.2 knots of wind (at least what I read on the race committee boat, Regardless ) OTUSA lifted up on its foils immediately after the start. New Zealand did not lift off its foils and was rolled by USA 17 that had started to windward. On the downwind leg, the American boat slowly stretched out. Halfway down Leg Three, NZL rolled out its gennaker. The speeds were nearly identically. Not taking any chances, OTUSA rolled out its gennaker. At the leeward gate the boats split sides. Against a 1.5-knot flood current, and sailing in spotty 11-15 knot winds, the two boats seemed even in speed. Just last week NZL would have sailed right past USA 17. Not anymore.

16-Ray-Davies-Sept-23-2013 So let's say you have to defeat a boat that is faster reaching, has a slight edge downwind, can foil earlier, and can maneuver just as well as you. What could you do to reach the finish line ahead? The first step is to win the start. NZL skipper, Dean Barker has won several starts. He knows he can do it. OTUSA’s Australian skipper, James Spithill, understands that Barker is really good and will try not to take risky chances. Barker must be bold, and try something that Spithill doesn't expect. Against a boat that appears to accelerate faster, Barker needs to start to leeward and ahead, and force USA 17 away from the first mark. On the downwind leg, Kiwi tactician Ray Davies must look forward and keep his boat in stronger winds. At times he should call to cover closely, while at other times he must be bold when he is sure his boat is in better wind. These are tricky calls, but this is the moment for greatness. If NZL can round ahead at the leeward gate they must cover USA 17 and use their starboard advantage and wind shadow to force USA 17 to make extra tacks, or sail in disturbed wind. If the USA gets behind on Leg Three, watch them make some desperate moves. Life is good when you are leading, but things can change if you get behind. When the hard truth of defeat is on the horizon mistakes are often made.

In my long career on the match race circuit, and in a number of America's Cup trials, I have been on a slower boat, and still found a way to win. (I have also been on faster boats and still lost). Every athlete is capable of mistakes, including the crew of USA 17. For NZL it starts with the belief that they can win. Dean Barker and his crew have already won eight races, and they have been ahead in three others that were canceled. Bad luck for NZL, but you can't look back. It hasn't been so easy for OTUSA, either. 16-Smiles-aboard-OTUSA-Sept-23-2013. Photo Credit. R. Steven Tsuchiya. They had to eat a two-point penalty and yet have kept fighting back. Barker and his tactician, Ray Davies, have been mates since their earliest days. There is a real trust between them. Together they can find a way to win. Right now they need a spark to break out of this slump. I am not sure why NZL’s team leader, Grant Dalton, has been off the crew roster, but he needs to get back on the boat. Dalton may have an injury, or some other issue that keeps him out of the lineup, but I think his presence makes a difference.

Completing this America's Cup feels like waiting for astronaut John Glenn's space launch in 1962. Glenn was on the launch pad for weeks before his rocket, Friendship 7 was ready, and the weather conditions favorable. Like Glenn's experience years ago, the mental strain on those involved in this Cup is causing fatigue. Everyone expected this to be long over. According to yachting historian, John Rousmaniere, the longest span in days for a Cup match was back in 1899. The NYYC race committee tried to complete races starting on Oct 3 between Columbia and Shamrock . The last race was completed on Oct 20. That's 18 days. Tomorrow is the 18th day of the 34th Defense.

If NZL can win the opening race scheduled to start at 1:15 local time, the Cup is over. If NZL loses they might pull a card that allows them to postpone the second race of the day. But, Dean Barker said at the post race press conference that they would not. We will see. The wind is expected to blow harder tomorrow. Luckily, we will have a flood tide of 1.6 knots for the first race, raising the 23-knot wind limit to 24.6 knots. I doubt the wind will build that high. Calling for a time out would force the Kiwis to sail two races on Wednesday. The stakes are incredibly high. But, when you think about it, where would you rather be than on one of the AC 72s for a race of this magnitude?

The crowds today were paltry. I counted a maximum of 25 spectator boats on the water. Some of the bleachers along the waterfront are being dismantled. This is in stark contrast to the huge crowds that were watching over the past few weekends. For most people normal life needs to continue. The dramatic drop in attendance reminds me of 1969 when an estimated 400,000 people attended the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The last act on the list of star-studded rock bands that performed throughout a three day weekend did not get to play until Monday morning. Jimmy Hendrix gave the performance of his career, and yet, only 25,000 were on hand to hear him.

Sometime over the next one, two or three days, either Oracle Team USA, or Emirates Team New Zealand will win the America's Cup. Every race will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network starting at 4pm Eastern Time (1pm Pacific). These will be epic races for the ages. One team will feel pain, the other will be somewhere between elated and ecstatic.

Photos courtesy of photographer Steven Tsuchiya.


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