While many had Oracle Team USA all but written off in this 34th America's Cup, today the defender hit back hard. Several modifications to her AC72 made during Friday's layday, the most noticable being a shortening of her bowsprit (thereby being unable to use a Code Zero), appear to have worked and today for the time she appeared competitive with Emirates Team New Zealand upwind, an area of her performance envelope that has been crucially lacking so far in this competition.
Similarly the Kiwi team had also had its AC72 remeasured following modifications made on Friday but most noticable in how their game has changed is that between Dean Barker and Ray Davies, they are now winning more starts - a weakness earlier in this competition.
But the day will be remembered for Emirates Team New Zealand coming within a whisker of being on the banana boat home, as during a sudden tack that didn't quite go according to plan, its AC72 came literally within a whisker of capsizing. One can just imagine how things might have been different if there had been two knots more wind and the catamaran had not returned from the brink. Thankfully, finally, after a ponderous moment, its weather hull finally crashed back down in the water - much to the relief of the sailing team, but also the Emirates Team New Zealand shore crew, the New Zealand government who partially back the campaign and the team's legion of followers around the world.
This was enough for Oracle Team USA to get their second win of the 34th America's Cup, which means that both of their docked points going into this competition are now scrubbed and the competition is now officially at 6-0 in Emirates Team New Zealand's favour.
On board Oracle Team USA today was: Shannon Falcone (Grinder), Joe Spooner (Grinder), Jono Macbeth (Grinder), Rome Kirby (Off side trimmer), Joey Newton (Jib Trimmer), Gillo Nobili (Grinder), Simeon Tienpont (Grinder), Kyle Langford (Wing trimmer), Jimmy Spithill (Helm/Skipper), Tom Slingsby (Strategist), Ben Ainslie (Tactician)
On Emirates Team New Zealand today was: Dean Barker (Helm/ Skipper), Ray Davies (Tactician), Glenn Ashby (Wing Trimmer), Chris Ward (Grinder Pedestal), Rob Waddell (Grinder Pedestal 2), Derek Saward (Floater grinder), James Dagg (Trimmer), Race 1: Winston Macferlane Race 2: Grant Dalton (Grinder Pedestal 3), Chris McAsey (Grinder Pedestal 4), Jeremy Lomas (Pit), Adam Beashel (Bow).
The breeze was at the upper limit of the permitted range from the WSW at 19 knots and for the first time in this America's Cup with an 1.3 knot ebb tide (ie wind against) rather than the usual flood. This affected the start - with more of a pin end bias to the line - shortened the beat and also widen the breadth of the course with no favourable tidal lee behind Alcatraz to play.
Emirates Team New Zealand came in with the favoured port entry and crossed cleanly ahead of Oracle Team USA, which unusually delayed its gybe to go follow, appearing keen to set up in the leeward position. The Kiwis gybed back with 1:15 to go. Coming back into the line with Oracle Team USA to leeward, Spithill was trying hard - too hard, he admitted later - to get a hook on the Kiwi AC72. Unflustered, the Kiwis managed to keep one step ahead of their opponents and still managed to nail the start with Oracle crossing half a boat length behind.
So after number Oracle start wins, Barker had managed to pull one back with the Kiwis leading into the reaching mark and also on the run. Somehow Oracle Team USA was looking much more comfortable today with less 'dolphining' downwind but with Emirates Team New Zealand still slightly faster through the gybes.
Crucially at the leeward gate, Emirates Team New Zealand took the port hand mark, while Oracle Team USA had put in an extra gybe on the run allowing them to round the starboard mark, creating a split going up the beat. As expected, the Kiwis tacked to cover and at the first cross were clear ahead on port, continuing on. But it was immediately noticable that Oracle Team USA was no longer looking like a pig during her tacks and her straight line speed upwind was looking every bit as impressive as the Kiwis'.
There was a tacking duel with the two boat looking very even and bounching each other up the race course with the Kiwis on the left and during the fifth meeting, about three-quarters up the leg, as Emirates Team New Zealand tacked, her wing failed to pop and still effectively 'sheeted in on the wrong side' and with the foils helping her come out on the new tack and with the wind catching the bottom of her crossbeam fairings and the semi-circular panel in her trampoline that forms an endplate for her wing, caused to heel over to approaching 45deg. For one very long split second it looked like the Kiwi catamaran might capsize on top of her opponent (an interesting insurance claim...) but rapid manoeuvring from Oracle Team USA managed to keep them out of harms way as the Kiwis recovered.
From there Oracle steamed on up the beat and the Kiwis were never in the game, valiantly attempting to follow their opponents but clearly shaken by the experience. As Chris Draper subsequently pointed out, it was fortunate the experience the teams got in the AC45s where almost all capsized and their crews have some experience of how to get out of this situation.
Oracle Team USA got their second point on the board, finishing with a 47 second lead over Emirates Team New Zealand, but certainly the better news for skipper Jimmy Spithill was that his boat had grown some legs over the previous 48 hours. He said that the shore team and designer had been working throughout this period on devising ways of making the boat go faster.
“It’s what the team needed. I can’t tell you how hard the team around us works. We’ve been saying it in house that we can win races. We don’t care what the scoreline is. At some point it’s going to turn. Today was a big moment for us. We clearly made a step in the boat’s performance. It’s a big step and a key moment in the regatta.
“To come from behind on the upwind leg, was a big boost for the guys. The design team, the engineering team, the shore team, all worked very, very hard yesterday and they were rewarded with the win. It’s exactly what we needed. We’re going to work all night again, and we’ll come out tomorrow ready to try to step it up once more.”
Tactician Tom Slingsby added: “It’s the first time upwind we felt really competitive. Our tacks were better, we felt like we were sailing the shifts a bit better, and obviously the speed was better. We made a couple changes to the boat yesterday, and they seem to have been good steps. We’re really encouraged.”
Of the Kiwi's near caprsize, Spithill said he had been about to duck and attempt to hook them until he saw their big hull fly and managed to put in a crash tack.
Dean Barker later admitted that there had been an issue with the hydraulics that had caused the wing not to tack. "“It was sort of a marginal cross and we made the call to tack to leeward. We were a little bit rushed and we missed the hydraulics. If you don’t get the hydraulics and the boat tacks, the wind starts sucking the boat over. We got about as close as you can possibly get to having the thing end up on its side.”
Despite the incident Barker thought the boat was in good shape.
“We got about as close as you can possibly get to having the thing end up on its side,” said Barker, who at the time was stuck in the leeward hull looking up at the rest of the 46ft wide catamaran. “We still take a lot of positives out of today. We’re still very happy with the way the boat’s going and there are still things we can improve. We’ll be out there fighting for points tomorrow.”
A second race was started and once again it was Emirates Team New Zealand that won, leading down the run with another split at the leeward mark. Sadly with the race lining up to be another good one, the Race Committee for the first time pulled the plug on proceedings with the wing having exceeded the maximum permitted limit for racing.
Racing resumes tomorrow (Sunday) with the Kiwis still requiring three points to win, while Oracle Team USA continue to have a largely mountain to climb, nine behind.
More photos from Carlo Borlenghi/ Luna Rossa/www.borlenghi.com