Team New Zealand Move a Win From Capturing the America’s Cup
HAMILTON, Bermuda — Four years later, with Emirates Team New Zealand back at match point against Oracle Team USA, this edition of the America’s Cup is certainly about the bikes. But it is also about gambling on youth and daring design.
With two more victories on Sunday, Team New Zealand took a 6-1 lead in this first-to-seven Cup match. So lopsided is the contest that significant crew changes are not out of the question for Oracle; Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s star skipper and longtime leader, is not ruling out being replaced at the helm by the team’s tactician, Tom Slingsby, for Monday’s races.
“Look, everything is on the table,” Spithill said after Oracle’s latest error-filled afternoon on the Great Sound.
Spithill, long considered the world’s top match racer, has been beaten to the starting line in all but one race so far, losing duel after duel against the Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling, who is in his first America’s Cup.
In the yachting world, this has been a stunning development.
“It is student teaching the master,” said Ken Read, a former America’s Cup helmsman.
It is also challenger schooling the defender. Team New Zealand, which led Team USA by 8-1 in San Francisco in 2013 only to suffer a collapse, is navigating the cerulean waters of Bermuda more expertly than its more experienced opponent.
In Sunday’s second race, Team New Zealand never once dropped off its foils from start to finish, keeping the friction and fuss to a minimum as Spithill and his veteran crew kept splashing down in their wake, and even incurred their latest penalty for sailing outside the course.
The Oracle team owner Larry Ellison, who became a multibillionaire by developing and marketing business software, is financing a team that cannot get the technical details right; Team USA has blamed its onboard computer systems for some of its problems, despite its budgetary advantage. As an innovator and perfectionist who likes his Zen gardens just so, Ellison must also admire the Kiwis’ precision and ingenuity on a relative shoestring.
The chief executive Grant Dalton and the chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge have spent their limited budget on the essentials, not creature comforts, as those who have visited their spartan home base in Auckland can confirm. The Kiwis have also had the moxie to think outside the box while staying inside the rules.
The four cycling grinders on board are the most obvious manifestation of this. Known as cyclors — a portmanteau of cyclists and sailors — they have become the symbol of this Cup and, like many a design breakthrough, represent an idea that looks obvious only in retrospect.
The Swedes tried it in the America’s Cup long ago, but only below decks. Other teams, including Oracle, claim they had considered the idea before rejecting it, but only the Kiwis have truly made it work.
And it has worked not only because strong legs can produce more wattage with less effort than strong arms on traditional hand-powered grinding pedestals. It has worked because it has allowed the Kiwis to produce that wattage while keeping their hands free for other onboard duties, supplementing the work of Burling and the wing trimmer Glenn Ashby.
“That’s a massive factor,” said Andy Maloney, one of Team New Zealand’s cyclors. “We pride ourselves on not everything being put into Peter’s or Glenn’s hands, whereas you see Jimmy Spithill and Tom Slingsby pretty much doing 99 percent of the work on the Oracle boat, and they look pretty hectic. They get pretty flustered when it’s a tight race, whereas we delegate the jobs a bit more evenly across the boat because we can use our hands.”
It is more complex than that, of course. Team New Zealand has also had good weather models and developed its boat with light winds in mind.
It is far from certain that the rules will allow cyclors in the next Cup. It may be time for the power to be produced automatically, rather than relying so heavily on grinders.
But Team New Zealand’s control system — with the bikes just one component — has also worked so well in Bermuda because the Kiwis dreamed it up and polished it up early enough in this Cup cycle to make it impossible for the competition to replicate effectively on short notice.
Oracle tried. The team added a cycling station for Slingsby early in the regatta but has since abandoned the idea. Slingsby was back turning the handles with his hands on Saturday and Sunday.
“I’m sure Tom has spent a lot of time making crucial decisions while he’s fatigued,” Maloney said. “But it would be a lot harder for him to do it than Pete, who is sitting in the back of our boat and has a really good feel for the angles we’re sailing, and he’s just getting information fed to him, and he’s able to make pretty clear calls around the racecourse.”
The Kiwis have not been perfect, but they have been remarkable, all the more so given that just one of their primary crew members had sailed in an America’s Cup until arriving in Bermuda.
The fresh-faced crew, led by a young helmsman with no scar tissue from 2013, has Spithill entertaining the idea of stepping down and has itself one victory from taking the sport’s oldest major trophy all the way back to New Zealand.