SAN FRANCISCO – The first day of the newfangled America’s Cup on sparkling San Francisco Bay ended with Emirates Team New Zealand skimming above the waves faster and better than defending champion Oracle Team USA.
The Kiwis, who had been considered the underdog until Oracle was hit with the harshest penalties in the regatta’s 162-year history, won the first two races of the 34th America’s Cup on Saturday with what appeared to be better boat speed, tactics and crew work aboard their high-performance, 72-foot catamaran.
“For us, it couldn’t have been a better start,” said Dean Barker, the low-key Kiwi skipper. “I’m really proud of the way the guys sailed. The boat was spot-on today.”
Both Barker and rival skipper Jimmy Spithill said it’s too early to tell if the Kiwis have a speed edge. While Spithill was aggressive in both races, the American-based crew didn’t always make the right calls.
“I don’t’ think you can say we lost on boat speed,” Spithill said. “I think we made just a few little mistakes here and there. It was very, very tight racing. There will be a lot of lessons learned. I think the team that can really take steps forward from these days, win or lose, will be the team that will advance more.”
At the very least, the Kiwis took some hide out of the American powerhouse, which is owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp.
On a hot, gorgeous day, the Kiwis lost and then regained the lead to win the opening race by 36 seconds. They led the whole way in the second race to win by 52 seconds.
The Kiwis need seven more wins to claim the oldest trophy in international sports for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, which held the Auld Mug from 1995-2003.
Oracle Team USA must win 11 races to retain the Cup. An international jury docked Oracle two points in the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup.
The racing disproved concerns that there would be no passing lanes on the short course between the Golden Gate Bridge to just past Alcatraz Island, and that the competition would be devoid of match-racing tactics.
There were both in the opening races of the first America’s Cup contested inshore rather than miles out at sea.
This is also the first time sailing’s marquee regatta has featured foiling catamarans, which lift onto hydrofoils when they reach a certain speed, with both hulls completely out of the water. That reduces drag and increases speed.
Races 3 and 4 are scheduled for Sunday.
On Saturday, Barker was a little quicker off the starting line just inside the Golden Gate Bridge and beat Spithill to the reaching first mark in both races. That allowed him to dictate the race from there.
In the first race, Barker kept the lead on the downwind second leg and was four seconds ahead at the mark, but slowed down a bit shortly after turning onto the windward third leg. The first time the 72-foot catamarans crossed, Spithill had sailed Oracle into the lead.
But Spithill let the Kiwis get the starboard tack advantage and they protected the favored left side of the course sailing past the cityfront. In the second lead change on the leg, Barker sailed ahead and built a decent advantage.
Oracle appeared to have some kind of damage on its 131-foot wing sail after the first race but Spithill said it wasn’t serious. The wing sail looks and performs like an airplane wing, including a front element and flaps.
In the prestart of the second race, Spithill was aggressive and tried to draw a penalty against the Kiwis. In the favored leeward position, Spithill’s starboard hull appeared to touch the Kiwi cat but no penalty was called. The boats were slow off the line before Team New Zealand accelerated and lifted onto its foils and beat the Americans across the reach to the first mark.
The Kiwis simply covered the American syndicate the rest of the way. New Zealand had a seven-second lead rounding the second mark, but Oracle crashed its starboard bow into the waves rounding the mark and lost speed.
When Barker and the Kiwis ripped around mark three and began foiling, they led by 46 seconds.
Besides the start of the second race, there were a few other times when the boats came close to each other.
“These guys are definitely in control,” Team New Zealand wing trimmer Glenn Ashby said of the skippers. “It’s like riding your motorbike, basically, or driving your car, You don’t realize you’ve crashed until you’ve crashed. A lot of the time you’re in control until you come off. It’s part of this type of sailing. It’s high speed, it’s fast, it’s good fun. The decision-making processes that everybody on board, but particularly the guy sitting beside me (Barker), has to make in split seconds is critical.
“That decision-making process can make or break the boats very easily,” Ashby said. “Racing’s racing, and sometimes as we’ve seen in the AC45s, rubbing’s racing as well and we get a few little dings. Definitely for the shore crews, they don’t want to see any dings or scratches, and we don’t want to see any dings or scratches, either. Keeping the racing tight is a lot of fun, The boats are very maneuverable, they’re very powerful, they accelerate and slow down very quickly. You definitely have to be on your game.”
On Tuesday, Oracle Team USA was docked two points and Dirk de Ridder, who had trimmed the wing sail, was booted from the regatta, along with two shore crew members. Additionally, grinder Matt Mitchell was barred from the first four races and the syndicate was fined $250,000.
The harshest penalties in America’s Cup history were imposed for illegally modifying 45-foot catamarans in warmup regattas called the America’s Cup World Series last year and earlier this year. The punishment meant that Oracle started the regatta at minus-2.
Spithill said the loss of de Ridder “had nothing to do with the result.”
De Ridder was replaced by Kyle Langford, who at 24 is the youngest sailor in the America’s Cup.
Oracle tactician John Kostecki, a San Francisco native, had predicted there would be passing in this regatta.
He also hopes Oracle can stay ahead next time it’s in front.
“Hopefully we can take some races and not have passing and we can just win,” said Kostecki, who is one of only two Americans on Oracle’s 11-man crew.