SAN FRANCISCO — Many regattas ago, when Jimmy Spithill had not yet won the grandest prize in yachting, one of his mentors, the Australian Syd Fischer, gave him words to sail by.
“Syd used to say to me when something was going good, ‘Be careful,’ ” Spithill said. “‘Because you can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next.’”
A sailor had to be careful indeed in the 34th America’s Cup, which generated historically fast speeds and risks in carbon-fiber foiling catamarans that bore a greater resemblance to flying machines than boats.
But while it once looked all but certain that Spithill, the Oracle Team USA skipper and helmsman, and his crew mates were going to end up as feather dusters in San Francisco, they were ultimately able to turn Fischer’s catchphrase on its head, pulling off the greatest comeback in America’s Cup history and one of the most dramatic in any sport.
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Trailing by 8-1 to the challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand, and within one defeat of losing the Cup, Oracle made changes to its AC72 and its lineup and — against very heavy odds and a team of veteran sailors — proceeded to win an unprecedented eight straight races to defend the trophy.
The final blow came Wednesday in the first winner-take-all race since 1983. It was a grand spectacle, with the biggest crowd of the regatta gathered onshore and the two predatorial catamarans crossing the start line in near unison at nearly 40 knots.
Though New Zealand led at Mark 1 and Mark 2, the third leg again proved critical. In the early stages of this best-of-17 regatta, Oracle was the slower boat upwind, but as the series stretched on, the American shore team used the off days to modify the boat to its advantage, and Wednesday only underscored the obvious. Oracle was the significantly faster boat upwind, hydrofoiling for extended periods while Team New Zealand remained closer to the water and increasingly farther from the defender.
“They just got better and better,” said Grant Dalton, the managing director of Team New Zealand, who was also part of the crew Wednesday. “They got about a minute and a half faster on the beat than they were nine days ago. We were sort of 50 seconds a beat quicker, and now they’re 50 seconds quicker than us.”
The full extent of what Oracle did to change that crucial speed equation is not yet entirely clear. Modifications were clearly made to many aspects of its AC72, from the hydrofoils to the wing sail that was its primary power source. And unlike Team New Zealand, Oracle changed its measurement certificate for every race.
“I think what they did is they got their foils working very efficiently, took some weight out of the boat and learned how to use the wing a lot better,” said Gary Jobson, the sailing analyst who was part of a Cup-winning team in 1977.
The mid-regatta decision to replace tactician John Kostecki, an American veteran who knew San Francisco Bay intimately, with Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from Britain, also clearly contributed to the momentum shift, even though Oracle still lost its first two races with Ainslie in the lineup.
But the team’s fortunes and confidence clearly began to soar when Team New Zealand, well in front and within one nautical mile of winning the Cup last week, was unable to finish before the 40-minute time limit in a race that was abandoned.
Larry Ellison, Oracle’s owner, said he had a discussion with Russell Coutts, the team’s chief executive officer and former skipper, at the most dire phase of the regatta for Oracle.
“We were down, 8 to 1, and Russell says, ‘It doesn’t make sense that they are faster than us upwind,’ and we kept focusing on things we could do to the boat,” Ellison said. “We actually thought our boat was going to be OK. We just had to configure the boat properly, and the combination of our engineering team and the guys out on the water finally broke the code, finally figured out what we had to do.”