Against the Wind: One of the Greatest Comebacks in Sports History
Stu Woo has written a detailed review of those tense and competitive days in 2013 when Team New Zealand seemed poised to win the America’s Cup…and then, out of the blue, Oracle turned the tables and remarkably snatched the trophy. “Back on the Block” brought you a number of articles during the race series being held in San Francisco Bay and these are now also on the New Millennium Business blog pages.
Here are excerpts from Stu’s article on how it happened.
Race 5 of the 2013…America's Cup Mr. (Jimmy) Spithill, skipper of Oracle Team USA, the richest and possibly most prohibitively favored team in the history of the world's most famous yacht competition, had lost three of the first four races. Something was wrong with the way the Oracle boat was performing. Now he was facing the unthinkable: His team might lose.
The 11 sailors were a collection of international superstars. The engineers who designed the yacht and the programmers who built the software used to plot strategy had no peer. Oracle's computer simulations suggested the AC72—which cost at least $10 million to build—wasn't just the better boat in the final, it was the fastest sailboat ever to compete for the Cup, capable of 48 knots, or about 55 mph.
Mr. Spithill wasn't sure why Emirates Team New Zealand, Oracle's opponent in the final, had been faster so far. The prevailing theory among Oracle's sailors was that they were just rusty. As the defending Cup champions, they hadn't had to race in the preliminaries.
Through the first two legs, Oracle was in total control, building up an eight-second lead. Oracle's aura of invincibility had crumbled on this upwind leg. If New Zealand was behind at the upwind turn, it would take the lead. If the Kiwis already had the lead, they would turn the race into a rout.
By the time the boats reached the fourth leg, the gap was too large for Oracle to recover. New Zealand won by more than a minute. In racing terms, that might as well have been a week. New Zealand was now nearly halfway to the nine wins it needed to secure the Cup—and the time gap between the boats was only getting larger.
Oracle then played the postponement card – the America's Cup equivalent of a timeout, envisioned as a way for teams to fix problems.
Mr. Spithill thought the break, and the small modifications they had made, might have done the trick. The answer came quickly in Race 6. After getting blown out again on the upwind leg, Oracle lost by a margin of 47 seconds, and later that day, lost Race 7 by 66 seconds, its worst finish yet. New Zealand now needed just three more wins—and it had 12 chances to get them.
In 2010 at Valencia, Joseph Ozanne, then a 30-year-old engineer with a degree from a prestigious French aeronautics-engineering program, was responsible for designing the sail, which contained movable flaps like on an airplane. Mr. Ozanne was in charge of a computer program, the Velocity Performance Predictor, that calculated optimal wing angles and projected speeds. But the sailors ignored his advice. "You did your job, now let us sail the boat," Mr. Ozanne recalls being told.
After the sailors struggled for two days, Mr. Ozanne sat them down for a PowerPoint presentation. "You need to forget everything you've done on the conventional sail," he said. When the sailors eventually heeded his suggestions, the boat began performing as advertised.
The boat was so strange and powerful it was hard to handle. During training in October 2012, problems setting the sails and steering the boat caused the bows to nose-dive and the boat to pitch forward until the sail slammed into the water, leaving the sailors clinging to the yacht. The experience spooked everyone.
After his Race 7 drubbing, Mr. Spithill emerged from his shower to find that the team's sailors, engineers, designers and computer scientists had started a meeting without him. All the chairs were taken… the 30 people took turns suggesting changes to the boat.
As mandated by America's Cup rules, all the teams had to create boats of the same basic design—in this case a 72-foot catamaran. All of them had L-shaped boards under their hulls called "foils," which stick down below the waterline like little feet. When the boats hit a certain speed, the hulls rise out of the water and ride on the surfboard-size foils, creating the illusion that the boats are actually flying.
Both Oracle and New Zealand had been foiling downwind. But New Zealand's boat was getting partially up on its foils on the upwind leg, too.
Oracle had experimented with upwind foiling five weeks before the race at the insistence of Tom Slingsby, an Australian team member who had just won a sailing gold medal at the London Olympics. Nearly every time they tried, Oracle's hulls would fall off the foils and the bows would nose-dive into the water. [Meantime,] Mr. Ozanne's software indicated Oracle would easily outsail New Zealand upwind even without foiling.
Mr. Ozanne's computer program had given a target: Sail into the wind at a relatively tight angle of about 42 degrees, which would produce the optimal mix of speed and travel distance.
the Kiwis … had were sailing at much wider angles to the wind—about 50 degrees, on average. They were covering more water but reaching higher speeds—more than enough to offset the greater distance traveled. Foiling appeared to be the key. Oracle's computers hadn't anticipated such speeds.
The next morning, a scheduled off day … made another discovery. It was able to tack more quickly—13 mph rather than 10 mph.
In Race 8, Oracle was now foiling, too. New Zealand tried to turn quickly, but miscues caused the wind to catch the sail the wrong way. Its right hull lurched into the air and the giant yacht began tipping. Oracle was headed directly into the underbelly of the Kiwi yacht, which was teetering at a 45-degree angle to the water… the New Zealand boat stopped tipping and slammed back into the water. The near capsizing completely sapped its speed.
Oracle won the race by 52 seconds.
Back at the Oracle base, Mr. Ozanne said he had found the flaw in the computer model. To get going fast enough upwind to get on the foils, the yacht initially had to sail at an angle that would force it to cover more water—something the computer wasn't programmed to allow. When Mr. Ozanne input the wider angles into the software, the computer had recalculated the speed and showed the boat could sail faster that way, confirming what the sailors had found.
[Then, after a fog- disrupted race,]The Kiwis beat Oracle at the starting line. But by the time Oracle got to the upwind leg, it had a 20-second lead. It won by a commanding 84 seconds. The score was now 8-3.
On the next day of racing, Oracle took an early lead and held on to win by 23 seconds. In the day's second race, it did the same, winning by 37 seconds. It was now 8-5. Oracle now was foiling faster upwind than the Kiwis. In the next race, Oracle outmaneuvered New Zealand off the starting line and led wire-to-wire. The score was 8-6.
On Sept. 24, Oracle took an early lead in the first race that it never relinquished. In the day's second race, it took the lead on the upwind leg and won by 54 seconds. The score was 8-8.
The next day, Sept. 25, was the day of the decisive 19th race. Not far from the San Francisco waterfront, Oracle took a lead. When the upwind leg was done, Oracle was up by 26 seconds. The race was all but over. Oracle crossed the finish line 44 seconds ahead of New Zealand. The sailors hugged.
The America's Cup, first held in 1851, is believed to award the world's oldest international sporting trophy. The contest also is one of the least professionalized. There is no permanent organization, commission or governing body. The winner gets to pick where and when the next race is held—typically every three to five years—and what type of boat is used. All that tends to make the racing rather lopsided. In most cases, the faster of the two boats in the finals wins every match—and the faster boat is usually the defending champion.
For the 2013 Cup defense, Mr. Ellison decided to commission a new kind of boat, a decision that would turn the sport into something akin to Formula One on water. Picture two canoes, each one 72 feet long and made of carbon fiber, connected by a raft, with a 13-story wing, also made of carbon fiber, pinned to the middle. The software tycoon's $10 million investment created a vessel that could do more than 50 mph.
Write to Stu Woo at firstname.lastname@example.org
Against the Wind One of the Greatest Comebacks in Sports History
Updated Feb. 28, 2014 3:42 p.m. ET