America's Cup 2013 - Head games and racecourse wars resume intensity

America’s Cup - Day 1, Oracle Team USA vs Emirates Team NZ - Emirates Team NZ drives over Oracle Team USA at the start of Race 1.
Despite commanding home-court advantage in the ongoing 34th America’s Cup, the past two weeks haven’t been great for the Defender, Oracle Racing USA. The International Jury found the U.S.-flagged team guilty of having illegally doctored several of their AC45s and slapped the team with a (relatively) nominal fee ($250K), a two-win penalty and-likely the stiffest punishment-the expulsion/suspension of several team members, including their ace wingsail trimmer Dirk de Ridder.

Listen to Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill at a press conference and you’d never know that there was a performance issue. Yet study Spithill’s on-the-water countenance and it’s dead obvious that it’s been a stressful few weeks (read: months) for the hyper-talented Aussie.

All day Saturday and half of Sunday saw an intense-looking Spithill frustrated by the lack of results from his multi-million dollar wind machine, only to be replaced by his usual racecourse wizard self once Oracle seized control of the course in Race Four.

It might be a four-race deficit that his team still faces, sometimes it only takes a single victory to reverse a team’s psychological tide.

Michael Fortenbaugh, Commodore Manhattan Yacht Club; Deputy Mayor or Barcelona Maite Fandos and Sir Keith Mills, OSM Chairman. - IMOCA Ocean Masters New York to Barcelona Race 2014
OSM


Walk around the America’s Cup Park and the American fans certainly think that the scales are shifting in this regatta. Talk to Kiwi fans, however, and they are quick to remind you of the scoreboard delta and the fact that a loss can force a winning team to stay sharp, tight and humble…even if their racecourse record has but a single smudge from an entire summer’s worth of racing.

And based on the hordes of gathered fans on Saturday and Sunday, there was certainly no shortage of unsolicited opinions to be heard.

Yesterday, however, revealed a more desolate side of the America’s Cup Park. Oracle and ETNZ both enjoyed a lay day from racing, and typical Monday-morning suction vacuumed up most fans and deposited them back into their workaday realities.

Guns sounded for the far more hushed Superyacht Regatta (which, incidentally, boasts twice the number of teams competing for AC34!), but video feeds and voice commentary weren’t available so most fans simply opted to save-up their hard-won vacation time for the remaining Cup races. Even the media center-always a beehive of activity for the Fourth Estate-was deserted.

While there are still several hours to go before racing starts, the air is cooler today, with lower forecasted temperatures, and a crisp wind is keeping flags perfectly perpendicular to their poles. Current weather models are predicting the breeze to hover between 15-20 knots during today’s scheduled racing, which is nudging close to the USCG-enforced wind limits.

swSDIM0061 - 34th America's Cup


Depending on what plays-out meteorologically, today could feature some of the fastest runs of the regatta, or it could lead to the wind holds that characterized this summer’s Louis Vuitton Cup.

While the physical and metaphorical winds of fortune could still blow from any compass point in this regatta, the fantastic news for fans is that Sunday’s racing featured aggressive, seat-of-your-pants match racing, often played out at speeds exceeding 40 knots. But while the off-the-breeze speeds are stunning, ETNZ proved during their come-from-behind win on Sunday (Race Three) that-just like during the monohull days of yore-it’s the upwind legs where the biggest hostile takeovers can be realized.

Spithill and his Oracle teammates finished Sunday’s racing with relaxed, positive attitudes and were quick to announce that the tide had turned.

There’s no doubt that any momentum is crucial when your teams lags four races astern, but the hard fact remains that ETNZ still looks more polished in their boathandling (especially tacking) and in their acceleration, and they have certainly demonstrated an eagerness to engage Oracle with bare-knuckle tactics.

Emirates Team NZ - America’s Cup, day 2


For Spithill and Oracle Team USA, today will be a challenge in converting psychological momentum into tighter leaderboard margins.

For ETNZ skipper Dean Barker, the challenge will simply be to win six more races before Oracle can rack-up ten more bullets.

And while both tasks require world-class leadership and sailing skills, ultimately, it’s easier to count to six than it is to ten.

May the four winds blow you safely home,