Yesterday in the San Francisco Bay, Oracle Team USA clinched the trophy in sailing’s greatest race, America’s Cup. The team narrowly knocked out Team New Zealand, who won four of the first five races. To regain its momentum, Oracle modified its boat, brought Sir Ben Ainslie aboard and proved its worth in dramatic fashion by winning eight races straight. In the final race, the team beat New Zealand by 44 seconds.
The teams competing in the Cup are highly international, comprising Brits, Kiwis, Aussies, Americans. Emirates Team New Zealand was backed by a Dubai-based airline. Ainslie, a four-time British Olympic champion, worked brilliantly with skipper James Spithill and strategist Tom Slingsby – both Aussies – to turn the team’s fortunes around in what some are calling the most dramatic comeback in the history of the sport.
“What a race it had everything,” Spithill told the BBC. “Man, these guys just showed so much heart.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
He continued, “On your own you're nothing, but a team like this can make you look great. We were facing the barrel of a gun at 8-1 and the guys didn't even flinch. Thanks to San Francisco, this is one hell of a day.”
Although the race ended with Oracle lifting the trophy – the Auld Mug – the Kiwis, led by skipper Dean Barker, put in a strong performance and clearly took the lead early on. Things began to change, however, when they began to have trouble dealing with strong winds.
“It's obviously very hard to fathom. We went out there to give it our absolute best shot,” Barker said. “We felt we didn't leave anything on the table. When you're sailing against a boat going that fast it's very hard to swallow. It’s very frustrating. The gains they've made are phenomenal.”
“I'm incredibly proud of our team and what they've achieved but I'm gutted we didn't get the last win we needed to take the Cup back to New Zealand.”
Oracle also won the America’s Cup in 2010, clinching the mug from the Swiss team Alinghi in this extremely upper-crust competition. The winner each year determines the format, venue and timing of the next Cup. The specifications for this year’s Cup, laid out by the winners in 2010, were unique.
Larry Ellison, billionaire Oracle co-founder who sponsors the team, and Oracle team captain Russell Coutts decided that the teams would use 72-foot catamarans with rigid wing sails. This change allowed the teams to reach speeds of more than 50 miles per hour. Some critics did not support this change, especially when Oracle’s catamaran capsized in the San Francisco Bay this May, killing two-time British Olympic medalist Andrew Simpson. Some referred to it as a “billionaire death match.” But the Cup is clearly about much more than money.
Ellison “is obviously financially involved, but that’s not as important to him as the risk that he took in staging this spectacle on San Francisco Bay, in these high-tech catamarans, where nobody thought it was going to take hold, and now it’s taken hold in a bigger way then I think he had dreamed,” said Julian Guthrie, a San Francisco journalist who wrote The Billionaire and the Mechanic.
“You're hitting near freeway speed – over 50 miles an hour,” San Francisco sailor Kimball Livingston told CBS. “These are the fastest boats ever built. We've never seen anything like this in any kind of sailing boat, much less the America's Cup.”
An additional change this year: the races were held closer to shore, allowing easier access to television studios eager to increase audience interest in the sport, which has waned over the years.
Faster boats and slicker televised coverage could be a winning combination for the future of the event.