Nearly 20 years after beating Mr. America’s Cup himself, Dennis Conner, Team New Zealand is on course to scuttle software billionaire Larry Ellison’s hopes of keeping sailing’s biggest prize.
Thousands of New Zealanders have swarmed the waterfront to cheer on their boys, who need three more wins to strip the Auld Mug from American powerhouse Oracle Team USA. The Kiwis lead 6 to minus-1, with Races 8 and 9 scheduled for Saturday.
The clincher could come Sunday. Friday was a lay day as both teams worked on their 72-foot catamarans following two more decisive wins by Emirates Team New Zealand on Thursday on San Francisco Bay.
In typical Kiwi fashion, the sailors are taking nothing for granted, even though Oracle needs to win a whopping 10 races to keep the Cup. The American syndicate has won only one race and is still in minus territory after being docked two points in the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year-history of the America’s Cup.
Still, the Kiwis know they’re approaching something big, just like in 1995 when Team New Zealand – then led by Peter Blake and Russell Coutts – swept Conner in five races off San Diego to become just the third country to win the silver trophy.
“We all want to win the thing massively and bring it back to New Zealand. It’s been a huge driver for the whole team,” said Glenn Ashby, one of only two Australians on the otherwise all-Kiwi crew.
Three years ago, Ashby, an expert at sailing multihulls, helped coach Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill – a fellow Aussie – before the American team sailed a giant trimaran to a two-race sweep of Alinghi of Switzerland to win the Cup.
Now Ashby is expertly trimming the 131-foot wing sail on Team New Zealand’s fast cat, one of the many reasons why skipper Dean Barker has Team New Zealand in control.
“For yachting, I think, and for New Zealand, it would be fantastic to have the America’s Cup back in New Zealand,” Ashby said. “I think everyone has been behind us. We’ve been amazed by the support of not only the New Zealanders, but by a lot of the Americans as well, getting behind us, which is fantastic.”
Spithill acknowledged after Thursday’s two losses that Oracle was shocked to find out how fast the Kiwis are upwind.
There’s only one upwind leg on the five-leg course, and it’s on that stretch, between Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge, where the Kiwis are punishing Oracle with both speed and boat-handling skill.
Oracle was swept Thursday even after replacing tactician John Kostecki <0x2014> who had been one of only two Americans on the 11-man crew <0x2014> with British Olympic star Ben Ainslie.
“To beat them, we obviously have to sail a flawless race and even then it’s a struggle,” Ainslie said Friday at the team base. “But we have won a race against them. We can do it. It is possible. Who knows, if we can win a couple of races and change some momentum, all of a sudden ... I think the Kiwis definitely feel they’ve got one, if not one hand and a couple of fingers, on this trophy. To suddenly take a couple of races off them, psychologically that could be tough for them.”
Ainslie said Oracle has made “a few subtle changes” to try to improve the upwind performance. That could include changing the daggerboards, although Ainslie declined to be specific.
Ainslie has been in tough spots before, particularly in rallying to win gold medals at the London and Athens Olympics. He won four straight Olympic gold medals to go with the silver he won in 1996. He was knighted in March.
Ainslie was hired by Oracle as skipper of the B boat to help prepare Spithill for this regatta. Ainslie wasn’t supposed to sail in the match against the Kiwis, but Oracle felt it needed to make the desperation move of subbing him for Kostecki.
“I think for me being on the boat, I’m able to just be super positive, a different perspective coming on the boat now and just trying to keep the guys pushing all the way,” he said. “In any sport you never give up because you just never know what can happen.”