Emirates New Zealand dominated the opening races of the America’s Cup on Saturday, stepping closer to claiming the yachting world’s coveted prize.
New Zealand beat defending champion Oracle Team USA off the starting line and across the finish twice in a row, besting the defending champions when it came to speed and maneuvering.
“I am really proud of the way the guys sailed. The boat was spot on,” New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said. “It’s going to be a battle right the way to the end.”
New Zealand seized the first race of the Cup, crossing the starting line with precision and going on to out-maneuver Oracle, proving to be slightly faster on the waters of San Francisco Bay.
Both skippers appeared grim-faced early in the opening race after New Zealand glided across the start slightly ahead of Oracle.
Oracle grabbed the lead with a bold cross-over in the third leg, until New Zealand took control with a tack of their own.
New Zealand crossed the finish 36 seconds ahead of Oracle.
Bold cross-overs by both teams resulted in the massive AC72 catamarans seeming close to collision, but course umpires called no penalties.
The second race was seemingly decided at the starting line, when Oracle got stalled behind New Zealand in what Spithill thought should have been a penalty.
Umpires did not agree. New Zealand bolted across the line to claim a lead that they never surrendered.
“It really was a touch and go moment in the race,” New Zealand tactician Ray Davies said after the second race. “It was pretty much the race right there in that moment.”
New Zealand’s lead grew when Oracle’s bow rose high and then plunged into the bay as they aggressively turned around the second marker.
New Zealand then held their position ahead of Oracle, firmly keeping the door closed to passing lanes.
New Zealand was comfortably ahead by the final leg of the race and crossed the finish 52 seconds ahead of Oracle.
“These guys did a really good job, didn’t make any mistakes,” Spithill said as he took part in a post-race press briefing with Barker and New Zealand wing man Glenn Ashby.
“I think you can say we lost on boat speed,” he said. “We made a few little mistakes.”
Barker and Spithill both said they would be scrutinizing their performances with the aim of going faster in the next two races, scheduled for yesterday.
The opening races of the 34th America’s Cup were seen as a demonstration of how the high-speed AC72 catamarans can make the event an exciting spectator sport with appeal beyond sailing lovers.
“We think this is the way forward,” Spithill said of racing the high-performance, high-cost catamarans. “It feels like we are up there with the other sports now.”
While New Zealand and Oracle took different design approaches, the boats seemed evenly matched and it will likely be small mistakes that decide outcomes of close races, Barker said.
“Starting will be very fierce, because these two guys are at the top of their game at the wheel of a US$10 million carbon missile,” Ashby quipped, referring to Barker and Spithill.
When asked whether high-speed near-misses in races prompted worries of crashes, Ashby shrugged off the notion with a grin.
“No, these guys are definitely in control,” he said.
“It is like driving a motorbike or a car; you don’t realize you’ve crashed until you’ve crashed,” he added. “It is fun.”
Oracle attracted criticism for the decision to race the AC72s — expensive, 22m wing-sail catamarans that can travel faster than 80kph. Prohibitive costs kept many competitors away and their temperamental handling sparked concerns over safety.
Cost and safety concerns have prompted talk that if Oracle loses the Cup, the next winner might set the clock back to the days of traditional mono-hull racing.
Oracle’s deficit in the best-of-17 series is more daunting thanks to the two-point penalty imposed on the holders before the finals began, for rules infractions in the America’s Cup World Series.
New Zealand must win nine races to claim the coveted Cup, while Oracle have to win 11 to retain the prize.
“It’s gong to be a battle right the way to the end,” Barker said.