It may take months, maybe years, before the world knows how Oracle Team USA pulled off the seemingly impossible. Eventually some grizzled old salt from the middle of the boat or from the shore team will have one rum too many in some far-off yacht club, and he’ll spill the beans.
The question is simple: How do you go from slow to quick, from hopeless to hopeful, from dead in the water to flying high and rally from an 8-1 deficit to win eight straight races in the world’s most competitive sailing event, in the process snatching the America’s Cup from the hands of its near-certain winners?
That’s what billionaire Larry Ellison’s lads did Wednesday on the sun-splashed, whitecapped waters of San Francisco Bay as they completed perhaps the unlikeliest comeback in modern sports. Oracle Team USA was lurching to pathetic defeat seven days earlier, sitting at match point down, needing eight straight wins to beat a well-sailed, well-equipped foe from a land where every cab driver and waitress knows more about sailboats than the average American yachtsman.
But on the way to the coronation, the hydrofoils came off Emirates Team New Zealand — or perhaps more accurately, their American adversaries at the last possible moment learned how to fly. One day it was joy in Auckland, all preparations for the parade, and a week later it was Ellison getting doused with bubbly while the bedraggled Kiwis trudged off to choke down humble pie.
Team New Zealand looked unbeatable, then everything the boys from Down Under had working for them went upside down. They almost capsized in Race 8 of the 19-race series. It was terrifying when their 72-foot, wing-sailed catamaran stood close to vertical on one, frail hull while skipper Dean Barker shrieked “hydro, hydro!” at the crew, trying to get them to pump the great wing sail over and right the craft before it self-destructed. It could have been disaster, and in the end it was.
The boat came down upright with a thud as Oracle shot to a commanding lead. The Kiwis nursed their wounded egos around the track and across the finish a few hundred yards behind. The score at that point was still 6-0, the Americans having been docked two points for infractions before the regatta even started.
But there was something in the body language of the Kiwis after that. Barker looked bunched-up, clutched the wheel too hard, hunched over it, brow furrowed. Kiwi tactician Ray Davies looked shocked and lost. It was all downhill. The New Zealanders won just two more races, while the American boat, flashing improved speed in every race, won nine, including the last eight in succession.
That’s not just psychology. What really happened was the American boat got quicker and the Kiwis stayed flat. This explanation came straight from an Auckland woman and sailing aficionado just moments after the final gun sounded Oracle’s triumph and gutted her island nation.
“We were as high as we could go when the regatta started,” said Suzanne McFadden, looking deflated and worn on Skype, “and [Oracle was] just getting started. They were in a completely different place on the learning curve.”
Anyone who watched this Cup on TV or in person could see the outcome thundering down this last week as Oracle got quicker, particularly on the long and decisive upwind legs, and Team New Zealand did not. The buzz around the docks was that Oracle was flying in new hydrofoils by the dozens, trying to find the right combination to get its space-age craft up and airborne, while the Kiwis nervously played defense, looking for that one last win, unwilling to change their tried and tested boat.
And so it went, down, down, down the gurgle tube for Team New Zealand until Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill, an Australian by birth, skittered down the run to the last turning mark with the Kiwis nearly disappearing in the whitecaps astern. A huge and unwisely premature grin lit Spithill’s face, but nothing came along to wipe it off, and history was writ in big, bold letters.
Grant Dalton, the Kiwis’ hard-nosed team leader, said he would change the format if he brought the Cup home. He wanted to introduce nationality rules so rich guys couldn’t just buy all the talent, and he wanted to bring in smaller, less expensive boats so more teams could afford to participate.
But you can’t take anything away from Ellison, nor from the tactical sailing wizard he hired to win him the Cup in 2010 and to defend it successfully in San Francisco. That’s Russell Coutts, the native New Zealander who made the call after Race 6, when Oracle couldn’t get out of its own way, to chuck tactician John Kostecki, a San Francisco native, and replace him with five-time Olympic medalist Ben Ainslie, an Englishman. That left only one American on Team USA and wasn’t a popular move.
So hurray for Oracle, for Coutts and Spithill and Ellison and for all the scores of hard-working men and women who spent three years living for this moment. The America’s Cup has weathered its worst storm, and it’s still America’s. For now.