Edge of glory

Emirates Team New Zealand is just one race away from redemption.

Photography by ACEA

26 June 2017


In the boxing vernacular which pugilist Jimmy Spithill is fond of using, Oracle Team USA is on the ropes.

Body blows landed by Emirates Team New Zealand see them 6-1 up in the America’s Cup match showdown, the Kiwis needing just one knock-out punch to complete the epic redemption task they set themselves four years ago.

In a contest that changes so rapidly as the America’s Cup the only constant is this: the team with fastest boat eventually wins.

Emirates Team New Zealand have proved time and time again they have the pace upwind and down to smoke everyone else on the course, including the defender Oracle.


But they also appear to have the better helmsman. Before this final all the talk was of how Jimmy Spithill, the three-time America’s Cup winner, would out psych New Zealand’s Peter Burling in the nerve-jangling boat on boat moments. At 26, Burling is 11 years Spithill’s junior, but he has now won seven out of eight pre-starts in this match. Spithill’s unforced errors have compounded his team’s under-performance.

Unfortunately, the biggest mistakes happened on the last race of the day, Race 8, just when Oracle really needed to him to step up and deliver the kind of gritty relentless pressure that put them back in the game in San Francisco in 2013.

Spithill botched an attempted hook, taking his foot completely off the gas slowing to just four knots, presumably to avoid being over the start.

Burling boxed him in before pulling away on the foils the Kiwis crossing the start 13 seconds ahead, an eternity when you are averaging close to 30 knots.

The Kiwi boat was pretty much out of sight by gate two where the lead on the downwind leg was already up to 24 seconds. Then Spithill chose to split the course, a decision that appeared to pay dividends on the upwind leg as the gap started to decrease, but a penalty on leg four as Oracle Team USA inexplicably sailed outside the boundary effectively ended it. The final margin was 30 seconds.

“We thought we would be able to pull a manoeuvre off but clearly we couldn’t, it was a big mistake,” admitted Spithill on the poor pre-start. “That really handed it to Peter and these guys were in a pretty easy situation to hook us and that’s game over really.”

In the earlier race both teams made clean getaways over the line, Emirates Team New Zealand just ahead as they rounded mark one. Spithill blinked first, making the turn before Burling and slowly inching closer to the Kiwis as they headed towards gate two. On leg three there was very little between the two teams but the Kiwis extended their advantage again as they headed upwind, giving themselves a 32 second lead as they headed into leg four.

Despite the growing gap, Oracle did not give up, continuing to try and claw back the advantage the Kiwis were building, but it was largely to no avail. The New Zealanders put on a dominant display, extending their lead downwind to 40 seconds by gate four and then slightly back to 35 seconds upwind to the fifth gate.

On leg six it looked as if New Zealand would wrap up the victory cleanly, but a bad jibe gave Team USA a glimmer of hope. Spithill and his crew did everything they could, reducing the deficit to 13 seconds at the sixth gate, but they were unable to bridge the gap completely and that left the Kiwis celebrating victory.

So that leaves Oracle contemplating what changes to make prior to Race 9, which gets underway at 3am Tuesday morning AEST. There’s been speculation Spithill will step off and hand the helm over to Tom Slingsby; indeed many AC watchers had expected it to happen earlier. Even Spithill isn’t ruling it out.

“Anything is on the table,” he admitted. “Every single team member in Oracle Team USA will do whatever they can to help the team win.

“That includes me. If the team feel they have a better chance of winning with me on the wheel, I’ll be on the wheel, if we feel we have a better chance with me off the wheel, no problem. Our attitude has always been you put the team before yourself.

“Once again, we will go away and review everything and tomorrow we will put out the boat, the configuration and the team we feel will give us the best possible chance to win some races,” Spithill rationalised.

While the Kiwis know all too well by bitter experience it isn’t over, the circumstances are very different now to 2013 when Spithill destroyed their collective spirit, coming back from an 8-1 deficit to win 9-8.

Back then Spithill and Oracle possessed the game changer; more boatspeed, and used it to every advantage. This time though they are the ones struggling for pace.

The pressure is intense on both helmsmen, but New Zealand’s Peter Burling has remained remarkably calm and focussed.

“Despite the lead we won’t get ahead of ourselves because we still know we have a job to do and it’s still an incredibly tough ask, “ he said.

“A lot has been said about what happened four years ago but I love the pressure. If you want to come all the way to Bermuda and win the America’s Cup then you have to deal with immense pressure. As a group we feel the pressure is bringing the best out of us and I think we’ve more than answered those questions.”

Vindication for Emirates Team New Zealand tomorrow could mean a massive shake-up in the America’s Cup itself. They are the only team not to have signed up to a new protocol governing the future of the Cup. If Burling’s team wins they would have the right to tear up that agreement, and many suspect that they will do so. To the victor of the foils, go the spoils.


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