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America's Cup: How Ben Ainslie led Oracle Team USA to remarkable 9-8 victory over Emirates Team New Zealand


Stuart Alexander
Thursday 26 September 2013 13:02 BST
Oracle Team USA celebrate retaining the America's Cup
Oracle Team USA celebrate retaining the America's Cup (Getty Images)

Fast boats win races and Oracle Team USA won the America's Cup in one of the most remarkable comebacks in any game. From 1-8 down in the second half they beat Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay by 9-8 and that was after they had had to clear a two-point penalty deficit.

It should have been a best of 17 in the 34th America's Cup but Oracle had to win 11 races to retain the cup they so brutally snatched from Swiss holder Ernesto Bertarelli in Valencia in 2010.

Britain's Olympic four-time gold medallist, the recently knighted Sir Ben Ainslie, became the caped crusader who flew to the rescue of a campaign heading for the beach. From struggling to match the New Zealanders' 72-foot wing-powered catamaran, and on the brink at 1-8 down in a first to nine wins series, the American Eagle swooped on the nocturnal kiwi and rendered it flightless.

If you wanted a gang of streetfighters on your side, the trio of Australian skipper Jimmy Spithill, tactician Ainslie and another Australian, strategist Tom Slingsby, would do very nicely. The well brought up and beautifully behaved duo of skipper Dean Barker and tactician Ray Davies on ETNZ increasingly looked like rabbits in the headlights as Ainslie – with Slingsby playing an equally important and matching role – shattered the hopes of the whole New Zealand nation.

“It was a fantastic race - we wouldn't have it any other way,” Spithill said after only the third winner-takes-all final in the event.

“We came from behind, the guys showed so much heart. On your own you're nothing, but a team like this can make you look great. We were facing the barrel of a gun at 8-1 and the guys didn't even flinch.”

“We knew we had a fight on our hands,” ETNZ's Barker said. “It's really frustrating. The gains that they made were just phenomenal. They did just an amazing job of sorting out their boat. It's a good thing for us they didn't do it earlier. I am incredibly proud of our team and what we achieved. But we didn't get that last one we needed to take the cup back to New Zealand. It's just very hard to swallow.”

On a winner takes all day, Barker at last managed to control the start, Spithill managed to bump his boat off the kerb at the first bend, and Barker had control of the second leg downwind. But not by much and once again, on the third leg, which had been Oracle's early nemesis, Spithill powered past New Zealand and, barring a catastrophe, it was all over for the challengers.

“Boatspeed is a tactician's best friend,” said commentator Kenny Read, and so it proved.

When the final started early in September, incredibly, the defender, despite having structured the competition and with 2010 experience of wing power under its belt, plus a more than adequate budget, was not sufficiently prepared. Long nights and scathing self-examination led to changes every night in the search for speed to give to Ainslie as he came off the bench to replace the starting tactician, John Kostecki.

Whether Kostecki would also have looked as famous given the faster boat will never be known. He had been one of only two Americans in the crew, though Slingsby has dual nationality, and that left Rome Kirby as the only one who sings the US national anthem.

Four times the west coast of the United States has hosted an America's Cup final. Three times New Zealand has been the challenger finalist, but the only one to succeed is now the boss of Oracle, Sir Russell Coutts. He is likely to take a little time to consider where the cup goes now, in consultation with his boss, Larry Ellison. This was the 30th time the United States has either retained or won it as the America's Cup in 34 outings. It was also 30 years minus one day on since they first lost it on 26 September 1983 in Newport.

Grant Dalton, Dean Barker and their black-clad Argonauts are leaving not just their hearts but the holy grail of the America's Cup in San Francisco. They can be proud of the contribution they made to a fairy tale script.

“To Oracle, amazing. We thought a couple of weeks ago that it was sort of in our favour, and the way they improved and turned things around is just incredible. It was unbelievable,” Barker said.

Whether they can summon not just the sinew but the dollars to come back again remains to be seen and will depend on how the next event, AC35, is structured. And the mood of the New Zealand government, which, under present prime minister John Key's predecessor Helen Clark, had contributed NZ$36m. to bringing back a trophy which generated jobs, tourism, and the wholesale redevelopment of the Viaduct Basin area of Auckland.

The Californians had been promised a summer of sailing. It turned out, in terms of bangs for the buck, to be 19 days of early autumn sailing, but, despite the early programme becoming disjointed and losing pace, there were some firecrackers among those 19 revolutionary days for the event in particular and sailing as a television sport.

The regatta has changed radically since a depleted challenger elimination series, the Louis Vuitton Cup, started in July. One of the three challengers, Sweden’s Artemis, was crippled anyway and then crippled again by the death of British Olympic gold medallist, Andrew Simpson.

A second, Italy’s Luna Rossa, was no match for Emirates Team New Zealand, the runaway winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup and with it the sole right to match up against the defender, Oracle Team USA. But other things fell into place. Not least the television feed. Led by two Kiwis, Denis Harvey and John Cameron, America’s Cup Television showed what these boats are about. It is not that they are catamarans, nor even that they are powered by a 130-foot wing. It was the way they accelerated, lifted out of the water and rode on foil stilts, skimming across the water at high speed. Great pictures. Great legacy.

The work of two Americans, Stan Honey and Ken Milne, overlays the track with graphics – some a development of work done for both gridiron football and Nascar racing - that tell the story of what is going on and helped their Liveline system win an Emmy. The whole production was nominated for an Emmy, and the coverage of the warm-up 45-foot series made the team a finalist in the 2012 Royal Television Awards.

Whoever eventually won, that genie of foiling and breakthrough television coverage is out of the bottle. The foil factor can be achieved with boats that are a lot cheaper to design and build, and it would be impossible to throw that audience gasp factor into the trash can. The whole team, including helicopter pilots and chase boat drivers, adds up to 92 and the kit is expensive to buy and to run, but it is an outstanding legacy – a major part of which is the people - of the event. Eat your heart out, Sepp Blatter. FIFA should at least have sent some observers.

During all of that there have been several races going on. One was on the San Francisco Bay track. One was in the design offices. The third is the management game, without which no America’s Cup team will be successful. Both teams were in the lead in all three at one time or another but the Americans were in the lead when it mattered, at the finish.

Then there was the psychological game, Spithill sneering that Barker had a privileged upbringing and taunting him by saying: “He’s never beaten me.” Oracle developed the momentum and had the budget to back it. ETNZ seemed to have few extra shots in the locker, despite saying, without a lot of conviction, that it, too, was developing every night. If they were, Oracle still managed to make it look as if they were standing still.

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