Sunday, May 27, 2018
Sports

Oracle Team USA is racing the clock to find an edge

HAMILTON, Bermuda — Oracle Team USA is back in deep trouble in the America's Cup against Emirates Team New Zealand. And in contrast to last time in San Francisco, Oracle will not be able to call on the nautical knowledge of Ben Ainslie to bail it out.

Ainslie, the star British sailor, joined the Oracle crew midway through the Cup match in 2013 and played a major role in helping the team overcome an 8-1 deficit and retain the trophy.

Now, with Ainslie gone to his own team, the Oracle skipper, Jimmy Spithill, and the team's deep-pocketed owner, Larry Ellison, will have to rely on other extreme measures in hopes of again turning the tide against the Kiwis.

The challenge looked enormous Sunday as Team New Zealand swept to two more lopsided victories in light, shifting winds and opened up a 3-0 lead on Oracle in this first-to-seven series. The Kiwis won the first race Sunday by 49 seconds, the next by 1 minute 12 seconds.

For those watching from home, the gaps looked big. From close range on a chase boat in Bermuda's Great Sound, they were even more striking. Oracle was more than 800 meters behind at one suspense-free stage in the day's second race, too far back to even sail in the Kiwis' wake. By the time the Americans arrived at Team New Zealand's previous location, the wake had already disappeared.

"Absolute domination," said Ken Read, a former America's Cup helmsman who is now an NBC analyst.

On board Oracle, there were barks of frustration and an occasional oath from the fiery Spithill.

The only good news on a demoralizing afternoon for the Americans was that they now have an extraordinary opportunity to regroup: There is a five-day break before the next set of races, scheduled for Saturday.

"We've been here before," Spithill said, referring to the 2013 comeback. "I think it's pretty obvious that those guys are faster, and we need to make some serious changes."

Nobody stops the NBA Finals for five days between games. It is a rarity in the venerable America's Cup, too, but the scheduling gap was announced long ago with the intention of making the most of weekend television coverage and the weekend crowds in Bermuda.

Conspiracy theorists can argue that it will also allow Oracle, with its superior financial means and onshore resources, another chance to make up for lost time, just as it did in San Francisco when race postponements gave it precious opportunities to make changes to its boat.

But the five-day break in Bermuda could just as easily have proved useful to the Kiwis if they had been the ones who got off to a shaky start.

"I think the schedule has been no surprise for anyone," said Peter Burling, Team New Zealand's 26-year-old helmsman, who has been an unflappable presence in his first America's Cup match.

Glenn Ashby, the team's skipper and wing-sail trimmer, said the Kiwis would be worried only about themselves.

"We couldn't really worry about what other people were doing, and that's the reason we have a boat that is pretty different to everyone else," he said. "I think we knew we had to be pretty aggressive with our design philosophy to be able to be in the mix, and I think we've shown so far we are in the mix."

Very much in the lead, as well, and the equation for stopping the Kiwis' momentum looks more complex this time. In San Francisco, aside from the addition of Ainslie, the key for Oracle was finding a way to hydrofoil upwind.

This time, both teams are already foiling nearly all the time, and it is difficult, even for the experts, to clearly identify a solution, although beating Team New Zealand to the first mark for a change would be a good place to start.

"Nothing will escape our eyes," Spithill said. "I can guarantee you that in these next five days, whether it's system-related, appendage-related, sailing technique or strategy, we're going to look at everything."

The Kiwis are indisputably faster in light-wind conditions. That could be due in part to the shape of their daggerboards, but for Oracle to alter its own would be a complex process. Though permitted to a degree by Cup rules, such a change typically requires several weeks or more.

The speed edge could also be the result of the Kiwis' innovative use of onboard cyclists instead of traditional grinders to produce the power to trim the wing sail and the foiling appendages. But even if Oracle added more such bikes to its boat (it has one), the Kiwis have months of lead time in using them. Team New Zealand also has a sophisticated control system that presumably would be impossible to replicate on short notice.

Despite nearly four years of preparation and an early look at Team New Zealand in Bermuda, where Oracle beat the Kiwis twice in round-robin races, Spithill sounds slightly mystified about how Oracle has fallen so far behind.

"That's what we have to go and figure out," he said. "The upside for us is there's quite a lot of technology out there right now, a lot of camera angles, microphones, a lot of the data that gets shared on both sides really, so there's quite a few opportunities there, and we've really got to take advantage of that. We've had our team watching the entire weekend, looking at all that data, and now we have to pull it all together and make some decisions."

A New Zealand reporter suggested that what Spithill was saying boiled down to copying the Kiwis.

"Look, no idea is out of the question," Spithill answered. "Clearly you sometimes learn the most when you look across the fence at competitors."

On Sunday at least, the Kiwis were increasingly hard for Spithill and his Oracle crew to spot. There was too much turquoise water separating them.

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