Weekend recap: crazy, compelling racing thrills fans

GMR18019 GMR_AC34SepD6_5816 GMR_AC34SepD6_5823 GB_AC34SepD7_1803 Race day 1 at 34th America's Cup


The first weekend of the 34th America’s Cup is a wrap. Challenger Emirates Team New Zealand has scored three victories and Defender ORACLE TEAM USA one, but the score stands at 3-0 due to the penalty imposed on the defender by the International Jury. That’s the easy part of the weekend to recap.

Approximately 80,000 fans took in some of the action on Saturday and Sunday at the two official America’s Cup venues, and tens of thousands of others lined the shores of San Francisco Bay. But it's hard to put into words the compelling craziness of this match. For those who’ve watched a ton of match racing through the years, this match is unlike any before it. That’s partly due to the AC72, the flying machine that rips around the racecourse at 50 miles per hour. The sailors have become matter of fact about the physical nature of the boats – “This is what the boys have spent the past three years training for,” said Kiwi skipper Dean Barker – but don’t underestimate the thrashing the sailors are taking.

“The course is tough and when the breeze is up like (Saturday and Sunday), it’s tough on the guys,” said Barker. “They get a flogging all the way around the course.”

“There’s no question that these boats are physically the most demanding class of boat we’ve ever sailed,” said ORACLE TEAM USA’s Jimmy Spithill. “For the guys doing all the work, that’s just about everyone other than the driver, it’s non-stop, relentless.”

As tactician John Kostecki predicted could happen, ORACLE TEAM USA went out today and practiced crew maneuvers. If the defender has an Achilles heel it’s tacking, because USA 17 is not a slow boat. In both of yesterday’s races, Spithill was able to hold the inside lane off the start line to the first reach mark. He even used a nifty luff maneuver to clear out Barker in Race 3, gaining a penalty on his rival.

Emirates Team New Zealand’s Aotearoa isn’t slow either. Barker had speed to burn on the upwind leg in Race 3, when he essentially sailed around the outside of ORACLE TEAM USA and into the lead. Emirates Team New Zealand gained 47 seconds on the leg, turning an 18-second deficit into a 29-second advantage after the 3-mile beat. The Kiwis made 10 tacks to ORACLE TEAM USA’s 11, but dockside scuttlebutt suggests the problem for the defender in the duel was an override of a jib sheet and not necessarily a speed deficit.

The weekend produced some incredible match racing, featuring luffs, tacking duels and outright aggression from Spithill. Five times he “flew” his Y flag, seeking a ruling from the umpires, and once they penalized the Kiwis. Conversely, Barker has “flown” his flag three times, resulting in no penalties on the defender. Of course, teams don’t actually use the Y flag anymore. The calls are initiated via the race comms. The tacticians would be hard-pressed to hold onto the flag when they’re waving it in 50-knot apparent winds. Try doing that going down the road one day and you’ll understand how hard the crews are being buffeted by the conditions.

This series is still up for grabs, and tomorrow could be pivotal in determining the outcome. Emirates Team New Zealand needs to remain calm and confident. If it can win another day or at least keep splitting races against ORACLE TEAM USA it will eventually reach its promised land.

For ORACLE TEAM USA, the team needs to pick its moments of aggression. It seemed that when the crew avoided confrontations and sailed its own race, as in Race 4, it has plenty of speed to overcome the 4-point deficit it faces. But the defender can’t settle for splits, it has to win a couple of days to draw the series out and chip away at the confidence of Emirates Team New Zealand.

—Sean McNeill