Gladwell's Line: Speed with a Capital 'S' - reflections on Race 5

America’s Cup Final 5 Emirates Team New Zealand vs Oracle Team USA
Emirates Team New Zealand is now leading the 34th America’s Cup by four races to one, in terms of real points, after a major turn around in the only race sailed today.

The drama came after the finish of the first of two races scheduled for the day, when Oracle Team USA called a time-out, as each team is entitled to do once in the regatta.

That unusual move for a Defender, caused a lot of speculation in the Media Conference as to what Oracle Team USA’s game plan might be. Many called for a replacement of the skipper and/or tactician.

While that might be a typical corporate approach, in this sporting environment now is not a place for hot-headed changes of that ilk.

An analysis of the rules and particularly those involving the racing schedule reveals that the reason for the time-out was mostly strategic, and not the harbinger of a pending hatchet job in the Oracle afterguard.

A total of nine days have two races scheduled per day, and there are now six days left in the regatta.

Oracle Team USA v Emirates Team New Zealand. America's Cup Day 3, San Francisco. Oracle Team USA sails fast on Leg 5 in Race 5

By our calculations, Oracle’s move today effectively shortened the regatta by one race to 17. But given the nature of yet another come from behind win from Emirates Team NZ, a repeat hiding would have lifted the Kiwis onto five points, or just two race days away from lifting the America’s Cup.

The time-out effectively lengthened the regatta for Oracle, meaning that there will have to be at least one race on Sunday September 15th. More importantly if they can win one or two more races of the next six, then they are in with a fighting chance of retaining the America’s Cup.

Today’s race followed its usual pattern, with Oracle Team USA winning the start, being ahead at the first Mark and ahead at the end of the run.

In the huddle at the back of the Media Conference today, skipper Dean Barker, said they were not relying on their upwind strength to get them out of a trailing position, and were unaware of this strength prior to sailing in the 34th Match.

San Francisco, 10/09/13 34th AMERICA'S CUP America's Cup Final 5 Emirates Team New Zealand vs Oracle Team USA

But the reality is the Emirates Team NZ have only won one race sailing end to end. All the other three wins have been come from behind situations – resulting from a combination of better mode selection by Emirates Team NZ coupled with errors by the Defender, at crucial times of the race – usually in the first half of the only beat.

The Kiwis ploy is essentially to be ahead at the bottom mark (Mark 2), or be in contact with Oracle Team USA, and then engage.

As was so often seen in the 12 metre era, of the America’s Cup, speed in the tack and out of it is crucial.

Emirates Team New Zealand seem to be particularly slick in the regard. They are able to build speed much more quickly out of the tack.

By engaging in a classic tacking duel they can wear Oracle Team USA down every time – except for Race 4, of course where Oracle had the luxury of being able to apply a loose cover, sail their own race, and allow the Kiwis to call the tune. Later team insiders put their loss down to a couple of bad tacks – allowing Oracle Team USA to rebuild their lead.

After five races we have seen enough of the two boats, and crews to be able to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Oracle Team USA is clearly superior in the start. And has won four of them. She also has the edge on the first reach, and is fast downwind. Today she had a lead of about 135metres at the bottom mark – which should have been easily defended using conventional tactics.

Oracle Team USA v Emirates Team New Zealand. America's Cup Day 3, San Francisco. Oracle Team USA sails fast on Leg 2 in Race 5

It is on the only upwind leg of the five leg course where Emirates Team NZ has the edge able to draw from a quiver of sailing and tactical modes. The Kiwi strategy is simply - engage, pass, extend.

Today Oracle Team USA’s most obvious error was at the bottom mark when they attempted a radical, carving high speed roll tack. Her speed dropped from 30kts to just over six kts in a few seconds. The worst of the spectacular move was the time taken to re-build her speed. In this one move she gave away 100 metres of her 135metre lead – allowing the New Zealanders to engage once again.

Several times in the leg Oracle appeared to get out of phase – with Emirates Team NZ sufficiently distant to allow the Kiwis to point higher and sail faster. Again at the back of the Media Conference, the Kiwis commented on finding a patch of breeze blowing 27kts – which enabled them to rocket through Oracle, and build a lead of 570 metres at Mark 3. Add in the 135 metres deficit at Mark 2 that is a massive 700 metre gain in one windward leg. Small wonder that Oracle called a time out to ponder a more reasoned response, than to just let the Kiwis go out 30 minutes later and see if they could do it again.

Surprisingly, despite the massive difference in margin, according to the statistics, the distance sailed by the two boats was almost identical - within 0.1nm of each other.

Oracle Team USA v Emirates Team New Zealand. America's Cup Day 3, San Francisco. Jimmy Spithill steps back aboard Oracle Team USA after the decision to call a time-out on Race 6

The thrashing bought back memories of the media conference after the Opening Race in the 2010 America’s Cup where Jimmy Spithill, sailing the BMW Oracle Racing ‘s wingsailed trimaran was able sail down the Alinghi 120ft catamaran and pass to windward, sparking skipper Brad Butterworth’s immortal comment:

'What do you want me to say mate? They sailed from behind us – to in front of us.

'When you’re sitting in front of them and they sail up and around you, that’s speed. With a capital 'S'.

With four downwind legs and one upwind leg on the five leg America’s Cup short-course, Oracle Team USA’s starting and downwind advantage should have handed them this series on a plate.

Oracle Team USA v Emirates Team New Zealand. America's Cup Day 3, San Francisco. Oracle Team USA sails fast on Leg 5 in Race 5

Their issues upwind, seem to be a combination of not quite being able to get into the right grove at the right time, and not applying the traditional match racing tactics which have been used for decades by a slower boat to defeat a faster one.

Such tactics call for very finely tuned crew work, no tactical mistakes, pushing your competitor into a corner from which they cannot escape, and just plain burning up time on the leg.
Despite the emphatic Kiwi win today, this regatta is still as much Oracle Team USA’s to lose as it is for the New Zealanders to win.