The forceful win of Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) in the 35th America’s Cup (AC) has set off an investigation not dissimilar to an Agatha Christie mystery novel. The scene of Oracle Team USA’s demise took place on the waters of Bermuda’s Great Sound. There, in a seven to one win, ETNZ won the “Auld Mug,” Sir Thomas Lipton’s 1928 term for the trophy. It’s gone by this moniker ever since. The races were never going to be easy for Oracle. As OTUSA skipper Jimmy Spithill said, “This is by far and away the strongest group of challengers we’ve ever had for the AC.”
Like all good mysteries, speculation ran high. From the Edwardian-vibed bar at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, to the Club SoHo-style 1609 bar at the Hamilton Princess Hotel, to those seated at their mahogany tables on the aft decks of the mega-yachts lining the quays of Hamilton Harbor, the speculation ran as follows:
- It was the wind. The lighter 7-14kt winds that predominated for the match races are said to have favored New Zealand (the Kiwis). The set-up of Oracle’s boat was, from its inception, designed for higher winds, more in the 12-18kts range.
- It was the foils. These are the prime suspects. The foils lift the boats up and allow for super-fast 40+kts sailing. The talk is that the Kiwis had better shaped foils, selected the right ones for the wind conditions, and had sensors and mechanisms that allowed for better foil control. As one veteran cup watcher said, “The foils are everything, they determine the boat’s fate.”
- It was the rudders. Twin rudders are used to steer the boat. The different designs of these change the amount of wetted surface, the angle of attack to the water, and the ability to turn the boat on a dime. A better rudder design makes a huge difference in a tight race. Oracle redesigned the winglets on the rudders for the final series of races. It may have not been enough.
- It was the cyclists. Both boats generated needed power to operate the wings and foils by using muscle. The more power, the faster and more reliable the systems are, making the boat more responsive. The Kiwis used leg cyclists. Oracle mainly used arms, with just one leg cyclist. A secondary result from “legs vs. arms” was windage. By keeping their heads down, the Kiwis created less wind resistance. There was lots of talk on the wharfs that windage played a bigger role than anticipated.
- It was the platform (everything above the water line). There was the strong sense that the Kiwis had a better-designed platform, one that allowed the boat to sail closer to the wind, traveling less distance from the start to the finish lines. Downwind too, the Kiwi boat jibbed faster and crisper. A Cup insider thought the shrouds were an issue for ETNZ. He told us, “When they adjusted them for the finals, they started to win.”
- It was the software. Oracle had software issues that were said to have cost them the start three times because the timing must be precise. If a boat goes over the starting line early, there is a penalty of two boat lengths. It is hard to recover from that.
- It was the sailors. Two of the world’s top sailors went head-to-head. Jimmy Spithill on Oracle is an AC veteran having sailed in six cups and won two. He is universally regarded as one of the most brilliant competitors on the water. Peter Burling, the ETNZ helmsman, has a trophy cabinet so groaning with sailing trophies it must be hard to close. He has won seven world championships in a variety of boats and a gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. He won the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in 2013. At 26, he may not even be at the top of his game yet.
The scuttlebutt is that Burling out-sailed Spithill. He won more of the crucial starts and never gave up his advantage. He made fewer mistakes. This theory resonates as it is almost impossible to recover from a bad jibe or a buried hull. Any sailing mistake can be fatal, and Burling made less of them.
The speculation will go on for years. Yet the facts are what they are. In a stunning upset, ETNZ has the cup and now must decide the terms of the next challenge. This mystery will be equal to how they won it.
Do they take the races back to New Zealand? Do they do that in two years as all the other teams have agreed to, or keep it at four years? Are they going to sail in catamarans or return to less expensive mono-hulls? Will they institute some type of nationality requirement? (Oracle did not have one starting American on the team. All the sailors were hired hands from Australia or New Zealand.)
Lastly and most importantly, what will be the role of Russell Coutts and the America’s Cup Event Authority? This Cup challenge was both his and billionaire backer Larry Ellison’s vision. Now that the winner, New Zealand, can set the rules, they may set a different course.
Stay tuned for the lead “suspects” in AC36 to be back on the sailing pages very soon.
If you’re interested in a more in-depth, technical analysis of the AC35, there is no better source than Matthew Sheehan’s Facebook page. He’s the dean of yachting writers.
Jonathan Russo has been a sailing enthusiast for 30 years. He sails his Sabre 38 “Sachem” and an Etchell’s from the Shelter Island Yacht Club. He has written about sailing and racing for Soundings, Scuttlebut and The Shelter Island Reporter.