Christmas came early for a fellow who already has everything as Oracle/BMW and its billionaire owner, Larry Ellison, scored first blood in the America's Cup semifinals today on a tactical gift from their foe.
Oracle's 4-minute 8-second win gives the San Francisco team a 1-0 lead over Seattle-based OneWorld in the best-of-seven series to determine who advances to the challenger final against top-seeded Alinghi next month.
Oracle's edge is actually stronger than that, as OneWorld starts the series at minus-one point as a result of a penalty imposed for infractions in the design process, and must win five races to advance.
Still, all signs looked favorable for OneWorld as the two boats headed off the starting line in eight-knot northerly winds and flat seas, with Ellison watching from his 250-foot motor yacht, Katana. Oracle has proved best in heavy winds so far, and trailed OneWorld in the light air the first two times the boats crossed up the first leg.
But a tactical error 10 minutes into the exercise turned the lead over as OneWorld skipper Peter Gilmour broke a cardinal rule of match-racing, letting helmsman James Spithill split away from the trailing boat.
When OneWorld failed to cover closely, Oracle slid out to the left side of the course, hooked into a favorable breeze and shot to a 49-second lead at the first turning mark -- a lead it nursed through the remaining 15 miles of racing.
Just before the lead change, onboard microphones caught Oracle crewman Cameron Dunn, high up the mast scanning for breeze, exhorting Chris Dickson at the wheel to go "left, left, left," and just after that he was overheard saying, "I can't believe they gave us the left."
The result improved Oracle's overall record over OneWorld to 6-1 this season, but the edge sounds more commanding than it is.
When the two squared off in quarterfinals last month, the San Francisco boat scored a 4-0 drubbing but the races were close, with final margins of 12 to 33 seconds.
Today it was more of the same as OneWorld charged back into contention on the next-to-last leg, drawing almost even as the two boats neared the final turning mark.
Oracle barely held off the charge to round the mark 10 seconds ahead, then found a favorable breeze and reopened a massive lead down the run to the finish.
On two of the three upwind legs, OneWorld pushed Oracle into tacking duels, hacking back and forth through the wind 25 to 30 times as the winch-grinders worked up a sweat. OneWorld gained on both exchanges, but not enough to regain the lead. On the final downwind run, fortune swung the other way and Oracle reopened an insurmountable lead.
There was no sign today of a wacky innovation Oracle tested last week and has hinted it might deploy in the future in light winds. The gadget -- a paraglider's kite flown from the mast at a height of 200 feet and higher -- could be a hoax, designed to distract the other teams.
But Oracle navigator Ian Burns said with a twinkle in his eye, "Anyone who's flown a kite of that type knows there's a big advantage to having something of that nature," adding, "we've had days on the Hauraki Gulf when there's almost no wind on the water but at 300 to 400 feet there's been 20 to 30 knots."
Kites in the America's Cup? Don't hold your breath.