Into the Wind: The Story of the 34th America’s Cup

After losing race 7 of 2013 Americas’ Cup, the oldest international sporting trophy of the world in which two of the fastest sailing yachts on earth go mano-a-mano to resolve who is the fastest, Jimmy Spithill found his team of sailors, engineers, designers and computer scientists had started a meeting without him; all discussing possible solutions and different sailing alternatives for the following race. At this point, the team Spithill lead, Oracle Team USA, reigning champion or ‘defender’ was losing the match 0-6 against Emirates Team New Zealand or ‘challenger’. In a competition to be the first to win 9 races and take the cup home. It was, from any perspective, a very bleak forecast.   

However, this was a turning point for Spithill since losing the respect and support of his team was not an option in a sport were captains are more like military generals than spiritual leaders. The meeting sent Spithill on a tangent that ultimately let him embrace his sailor abilities rather than his trust in technology. Eventually producing one of the most dramatic sporting stories in history. No hyperbole, it is a wonderful story. But let’s paint the context first:

The 2013 Americas Cup – Pre-Race

The Americas Cup is quite known internationally as the most prestigious sporting events in the world. Yet, it is one of the least professionalized: no permanent organization, commission or governing body. The winner picks key features of the next race like location and timing – typically every three to five years anywhere in the world with enough wind – and most importantly the type of boat used. All this tend to make the racing heavily in favour of the defender and it is not unusual for the reigning champion to win all the races of the match. 

The champions from the previous edition back in 2010 was the Golden Gate Yacht Club with its super sailing team Oracle Team USA. They decided that the 34th edition of the Americas Cup would take place in San Francisco Bay during September 2013. The circuit was a five-leg racecourse that took the boats from near the Golden Gate to downtown San Francisco and back before returning to the city centre. The first and last leg was done in a perpendicular position against the typical wind direction of the bay (coming from the west) in a north to south route, while leg 2 and 4 were downwind. Leg 3 was the ‘return’ leg and had an increased difficulty of being against the wind. Since sailboats cannot perform or move against the wind, sailors usually must take a ‘zig-zag’ route and constantly change directions (called ‘tacking’) at around 45 degrees of the wind source, making this part of the race the most difficult to perform. The overall race took 20 to 40 minutes to complete depending on the wind with a special clause that stipulated that if any team was unable to complete the racetrack in less than 40 minutes that particular match would be suspended to be repeated at a later time. 

Oracle was a collection of superstars with 11 crewmembers and a team of engineers who designed the boat and programmers that plot the strategy; it was a team that had no peers in the world of sailing. Backed by team owner Larry Ellison, the founder of software giant Oracle Corp; the team constructed no only the best possible boat for the race match, but the fastest sailboat ever to compete for the Cup: in this case, a 72-foot catamaran called AC72. Capable of 48 knots, or about 55 mph / 88Kmh, this was an outstanding boat that has more resemblance to a formula one car than a regular sailboat.

The AC72 was not only wild in how fast it could go but also extremely graceful and elegant in its design. With two hulls with L-shape boards under each hull called ‘foils’ which stayed under the water-line until the yacht had enough speed, at which point the force of the water against these ‘wings’ elevated the boat creating the illusion of levitation and reducing drag. It is an absolutely magical scene, especially since the foils are quite small compared to the volume of the overall boat with its gigantic 131 feet / 40 meters tall and 72 feet / 22mmt of length. Not an orthodox design for a sailboat by any stretch. Yet, the process of foiling works almost like a turbo-boost coming from a piece of carbon fibre the size of a coffee table that holds and helped to push 7 tons of boat at a record speed pace. This monster is flying above water at the same speed a car goes on the highway. Fairylike.

The challenger team for this edition was Emirates Team New Zealand representing the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, also a team of super sailors but that lacked the technological advancement and cash surplus of Oracle. The Kiwis came to the Cup perceived as underdogs waiving the banner of the true sailor and rejecting the technology freaks counterparts with too much cash in their pockets – an attitude that wins some support from the sailing community early on.

Under these conditions, both team starting training for the Magnus event months before the set date, nevertheless, five weeks before the race two meaningful and distinct factors started to shape the future of this magical race. First, both teams had been ‘foiling’ during practice or using the foils under each hull of the boat to ‘fly’ and reduce drag from the water below, however, each team had different ‘styles’ for the innovative practice; with Oracle been much more conservative based on results in its super-computer analysis. And secondly, as to make things more complicated for Oracle, during this period just before the race, cup officials were investigating modification on the AC72 that was outside of previously approved standards; the officials ruled for a violation, slapping Oracle with a two-race penalty before the competition even began. Starting the match -2 to 0 in favour of the Kiwis. It was just some spice to the recipe and made the overall preface of the race more interesting with a marginal increase of hope for the Kiwis, but still, no-one expected anything but Oracle winning in a successful defence of its crown.

Back to The Aftermaths of Race 7

After the nefarious meeting in which Spithill lost some of his power in front of the team, he took his sailor and technical team feedback to his apartment in San Francisco’s Marina District without saying much. It looked like he was going to be on the losing side of one of the most embarrassing upsets in sports history. That night, unable to sleep, he would re-do the ritual to grabbing his laptop and reviewing the losing races. During his evaluation process, Spithill always jumped back to the beginning leg 3 of the race, the starts of the upwind part with several zig-zagging and tacking took place. In this particular occasion, he reviewed once more two key features of his opponents sailing: the more aggressive foiling and the wider angle against the wind. Let’s review both: Foiling and Tacking.

Super-Yachts such as the ones used in this edition of the Americas Cup tend to foil during the downwind part of the race (legs 2 and 4 in this case), however, in this occasion the Kiwis were also partially getting some elevation during the upwind leg on a constant basis.  Everyone was surprised by this, especially team Oracle that had tried foiling when constantly tacking against the wind during the previous five weeks after reports of the New Zealand team doing it. Yet could not master the technique since the boat was constantly nose-diving into the water due to the enormous pressure against sails and hull. Not a fun thing to do while going at highway speeds at 13 feet above the surface in an f1 style sailboat.

Plus, all the engineers running the show from the computer room assured the team that their boat was several seconds better than the opponent in all the computer simulations studied. However, to Spithill eyes, it looked like every time the Kiwis foiled during the third leg or upwind part of the race, they either catch up if they were behind or increase their advantage if they were up-front. His logical brain rejected the idea of the opponent being faster during this part of the race, especially when millions of dollars of computer program and the best team of engineers and computer scientists were telling him he was performing the optimal way for his boat. On the contrary, his sailor instincts and his seaman’s eyes screamed for a different, more aggressive approach to foiling.

When on a sailing yacht, there is always a trade-off between speed and distance when sailing upwind. The tighter the angle to the wind, the shorter the total travel distance but the slower the boat moves. And for the race, the Oracle computer program run thousands of simulations and had real-life data input from practice and it had given a target: Sail into the wind at a relatively tight angle of about 42 degrees, which would produce the optimal mix of speed and travel distance.

The Kiwis had come to a different conclusion based on their own experiments and Spithill was once again astounded while looking at the video. They were sailing at a much wider angle to the wind, even bigger to the most conservative estimates. At about 50 degrees, their opponent was covering more water but reaching much higher speeds—more than enough to offset the greater distance travelled. At that point, his instincts appear to indicate that the broader degree of attack against the wind permitted a more stable boat to perform Foiling against the wind, which looks to be the key factor in the race. However, Oracle’s computers hadn’t anticipated such speeds. Did they miss something?

To top it all, Spithill was irritated with New Zealand team’s apparent contempt for Oracle’s approach and their open disdain of the costly, high-tech approach the Americans has chosen. In his heart, he was a sailor and not a robot that followed instructions from a CPU, no matter how super the computer. So, that night, after not sleeping and spending too much time worrying over his six lost races, he decided to risk it all and increased the hazard of nose-diving into the water at highway speeds: it was an important decision since he was increasing the danger for his crew but, at the same time, that could mean recovering his edge. Tacking with wider angles upwind, travelling a long distance and practising foiling with the increased speed was the only thing he wanted to do at that point. He decided to follow his seaman eyes, ignoring the millions of dollars in tech and the pressure of the best engineers in the world. It was all glory or devastating ridicule for Spithill at that point. He did not want anything more that night but to race 8 to start.

The myth of race 8

On Race 8, New Zealand jumped to an early lead, being 3 seconds ahead at the turn into leg 2 and stretching that lead into an 8 second by the start of leg 3, or around 42 meters / 137 feet. Looked like business as usual for the Kiwis and it was easy to predict their advantage to increase during the against-the-wind part of the race. Yet, Oracle was close enough for their crew to understand they had a shot by foiling and had some hope in the new direction Spithill was taking the team. It was a now or never moment.

Right after the turn, it was easy to see the Americans being more aggressive in their manoeuvres, tacking with more ease each turn and stirring the yacht into wider turns. Usually for leg 3, while both vessels go against the wind, both boats crossed paths while zig-zagging, giving a clear indication of who is ahead every time their paths crossed. The Kiwis kept the lead for a while, but Oracle’s was foiling with one of its hulls above water at every moment and by the third cross both vessels were less than 30 meters / 98 feet apart and closing fast. During all this frenetic action, the radio spelt the commanding voice of Spithill giving agitated orders and calling out the good performance of his crew and yacht; something rare in previous races.

A third into the leg, the Wikis still had a small advantage, the Americans still approaching fast when during one of the last cross both vessels came dangerously close. The Americans had the right of way based on their position relative to the wind and the New Zealanders were forced to ploy out of the way in a violent movement. It is a spectacular photo, with one of the Kiwi’s hull not only out of the water but high in the sky and their mainsail almost touching the water, their boat a few seconds from capsizing and the crew holding for their safety, expecting to be projected into the water within milliseconds. The yacht held afloat, yet the Americans passed at that very moment and never lose the lead for the rest of the race.

Oracle reached the finish line with more than 52 seconds ahead, looked like they had a rekindle in spirit and techniques, still, it was difficult to tell if the Kiwis just made a mistake or this was a more serious turnaround.

Back in the Oracle base, to bring the day to an even better stance, the engineering team found a flaw in the computer model: to get going fast enough upwind to get on the foils, the yacht initially had to sail at an angle that would force it to cover more water—something the computer wasn’t programmed to allow but that it was demonstrated to be a success both in bits and in the water. When the team input for a wider angle into the software, the computer had recalculated the speed and showed the boat could sail faster that way, confirming what the sailors had found. Spithill and his gut were right.

It was all good news for Oracle. But they still were losing the race 6 to 0. Up to this point, team Oracle has won 2 races but this only served to upset the penalty imposed by officials in the weeks before the Cup. They now must win 9 more races and prevent the New Zealand team to win 3 if they wanted to stay as reigning champions.

Race 9 / 10 / 11 (the Kiwis fight back):

For Race 9, the Americans once more defeated the Kiwis to win their second consecutive race in a row and put the overall score 6 to 1. They needed 8 more races. However, and while Oracle had figured out how to match New Zealand’s speed upwind, it hadn’t yet mastered the technique. In race 10 and 11, the Kiwis rallied to win both races by close margins, giving them an 8-1 advantage. One more loss for Oracle and it was done. One more win for New Zealand and the championship was theirs. Things looked bleak and promising for one side and the other.

Six days after what it looked like the turning point of race 8 and 9, the Kiwis mounted a reaction of pure craftsmanship and had the championship at their grasp after winning races 10 and 11. Only to win one more race out of eight looked easy enough and that morning they came as closed as possible, just 3 minutes too late. The Americans saved the first match-point early on September the 20th to put the overall score 8-2 in favour of the Kiwis, which in turn had high hopes of receiving a coronation that same afternoon after the day’s second race.

It was an afternoon of light winds, with fog all over the San Francisco Bay and a new potential final race was reached, despite the light gusts officials decided that it was good enough to start. New Zealand took an early lead in line for their glory-seeking attempt. Oracle fell behind, the team continued making mistakes and morale decayed to the lowest point possible, a difficult thing to accomplished considering their terrible performance of days past. While team Oracle sailed in despair, the Kiwis cut away through the fog with a lead that grew to nearly a mile. It was, for all intents and purposes, the end.

Only one thing could avoid New Zealand to take the cup that afternoon: the special clause that stipulated that if any team was unable to complete the racetrack in less than 40 minutes that match would be suspended to be repeated later that day or the next one. In team Oracle, they could only pray and check the radios while seeing their opponents far in the distance more than a world away. Thus, their prayers were heard, the wind was so light during that foggy afternoon that the limit time was reached with the Kiwis just 3 minutes from the finish line: At exactly 2 p.m., Mr Spithill heard the voice of a race official in the radio. “This is the race committee,” he said. “The time limit has expired”. Another match ball saved by Oracle. Still 8-2.

Races 13 / 14 / 15 / 16 / 17 / 18

That same afternoon, after the wind picked up, team Oracle won race 13 by an outstanding 84 seconds. Something clicked that afternoon for the Americans, sailing like they never did during the whole contest. The Kiwis remained confident with 8-3 in their favour, they still only needed one more race.

The next day, the Americans once more won the first race of the morning, this time by 23 seconds to set the overall score to 8-4. No lost of hope from the Kiwis yet and just mild confidence started growing on the Oracle team. They repeated that morning feast and won race 15 by 23 seconds to put the score 8-5. With Oracle now foiling faster upwind than the Kiwis, it looked like America’s Cup would be a race after all. Yet, Spithill and his team still understood that with one misstep, it would be over. The Kiwis, still confident, were still waiting for that American mistake.

On race 16 the Americans outmanoeuvred New Zealand off the starting line and led start to finish with commanding separateness. The score was 8-6. Everyone started paying attention again and the crowds were growing both on San Francisco piers and worldwide. Spectators who had earlier cheered for the underdogs from New Zealand had begun to cheer for the Americans as they had a shot at coming back in a spectacular manner.

Races 17 and 18 were held on September the 24th and Oracle smashed the Kiwis in both races while imposing their speed particularly over the upwind stages of the races once again. Performing at an impressive speed and setting the stage for the next day. The score was 8-8 with team Oracle winning the last 7 races and one step from pulling the biggest comeback in Cup history and one of the most impressive feast in any sport, ever.

Race 19 – Last Day

Everything came down to Race 19, on September the 25th, both teams prepared for what it would be a decisive race. While the Kiwis had the opportunity to finally pull out the upset and win as the team carrying the ‘true sailor spirit’, the Americans demonstrated that no matter the money and massive weight of technology, it was their crew and captain’s sailing wits and colossal capacity to adapt that got them to have a chance of immortality. Overall, this was a sailing competition and it was going to finish with two magnificent sailing crews going against each other one more time to settle who was the best of the best.

The race started with drama as Oracle main sails had a rupture before the start of the race and had to be repaired with hot glue, a fix that took them up to 5 minutes before the start of the competition. Once more, looked like their fate was sealed and everyone on the team was struggling to keep up, while at the same time, being too conservative to avoid putting too much tension on the sail. The Kiwis took a slight lead on leg 1 and solidified it on leg 2. Yet again, it looked like one of the early races with the Kiwis being much more aggressive and rallying above gust of winds that propelled them to have high hopes. They still looked like the stronger team with fate on their side.

By the end of leg 2, the Americans recovered some of the lost time and entered the, by now, mystic leg 3 less than 5 seconds behind. This was the moment, everything was reduced to a handful of tacks upwind for both New Zealanders and Americans. Years of preparation, designing, construction and practice was going to be resolved in the incoming miles. It seemed quite close now with the Kiwis still up front, but on every tack, team Oracle edged closer, scratching seconds first and then putting some distance when they finally took the lead.

Finalizing leg 3, not far from San Francisco waterfront and in front of a roaring crowd of locals, Oracle set their lead to 26 seconds. It was an impressive undertaking and a demonstrative one. magnificent few minutes of sailing from Oracle in leg 3 of Race 19 will forever be imprinted in the legend for those who love sailing. It embodied all their struggle, all their resilience and all their strengths. Of course, the race was over by this point. Team New Zealand never had another chance and team Oracle, for the first time since starting Americas Cup edition 34, had a straight shot at winning and keeping their crown.

Oracle won by 44 seconds that day and retained the cup by winning 8 consecutive races and pulling a come-back now engraved in the Olympus of sports stories. It was a spectacular and beautiful feat.


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