America's Cup: Reflecting on 2013, how Oracle pulled off the unthinkable

Jimmy Spithill couldn't wipe the smile off his face after Oracle completed a comeback from 8-1 down in the 2013 ...
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Jimmy Spithill couldn't wipe the smile off his face after Oracle completed a comeback from 8-1 down in the 2013 America's Cup match.

It is a moment in history most Kiwis would prefer to forget.

Four years ago in San Francisco, Oracle Team USA engineered one of the biggest comebacks in the history of sport to defend the America's Cup against Team New Zealand.

Down 8-1 and one loss away from handing over the Auld Mug, the US syndicate rattled off eight straight wins to secure a 9-8 triumph and retain the prized piece of silverware.

Team NZ skipper Dean Barker cut a devastated figure after being unable to halt the charge of the US boat.
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Team NZ skipper Dean Barker cut a devastated figure after being unable to halt the charge of the US boat.

As the same two teams prepare to go head-to-head in the rematch sailing fans everywhere wanted, we look back at the scarcely believable 2013 Cup match and how the drama unfolded.

READ MORE:
* Head-to-head: Team NZ v Oracle
* Big boost for Team New Zealand
* Jimmy Spithill goes Kiwi hunting

 
The Oracle crew celebrate after clinching victory in the winner takes all final race.
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The Oracle crew celebrate after clinching victory in the winner takes all final race.

THE SCENE IS SET

Heading into the best-of-17 match for the America's Cup in 2013, there was little question Team New Zealand would be every bit a match for holders Oracle.

The flying Kiwis won all four of their races against Italian challenger Luna Rossa in the challengers' round-robin and prevailed 7-1 against the same boat to book their place in the contest for the Auld Mug.

Barker is consoled by Team NZ boss Grant Dalton after they were defeated in the last race of the 2013 Cup match.
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Barker is consoled by Team NZ boss Grant Dalton after they were defeated in the last race of the 2013 Cup match.

Just three days before the opening race of the cup match, there was a further boost for Team New Zealand, as their US rivals were fined, three of the team expelled and, most importantly, put back to minus-two in the first to nine wins battle.

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Oracle had been found guilty of putting bags of lead pellets in their forward posts during a 2012 World Series warm-up event and that meant they would have to win 11 races to defend their crown.

KIWIS OFF TO A FLYER

When racing finally began, the Kiwi boat's good form from the challenger series rolled on.

They won both races on day one and although the two races on the second day were shared, the challengers again proven their superior speed upwind to storm to a big win to start day three and push out to a 4-0 advantage.

Alarm bells had begun to ring for Oracle and, on the advice of team boss and former Team New Zealand skipper Sir Russell Coutts, Australian skipper Jimmy Spithill played the one postponement card they had for the day's second race.

The Kiwi boat's ability to foil upwind had been a huge advantage, until Oracle learned to do the same.
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The Kiwi boat's ability to foil upwind had been a huge advantage, until Oracle learned to do the same.

It was a move that gave the Americans 48 hours to regroup, and proved critical in the eventual result.

TURNING THE WHEEL

During those two days Oracle made some big calls, the first replacing tactician John Kostecki with hugely successful British sailor Sir Ben Ainslie.

A disappointed Kiwi crew became a familiar sight as the match wore on out on San Francisco Bay.
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A disappointed Kiwi crew became a familiar sight as the match wore on out on San Francisco Bay.

The biggest changes, though, took place with the set-up of their AC72 catamaran and how they were going to sail it.

The Oracle shore crew worked through the night and the next day, a scheduled day off, the 11-man sailing crew were out on the water.

Up to that point, Team New Zealand's prime advantage had been their ability to foil upwind and when racing resumed, the Americans were doing the same.

It did not immediately pay dividends, as a Kiwi crew with a more refined foiling ability won two more races to go a 6-0 lead.

But the following day there were strong indications things were about to get a whole lot closer.

Oracle at least matched the upwind speed of the challengers to win the only race of a day on which Team New Zealand came within inches of a disastrous capsize.

A close and exciting day six was shared one-all, extending Team New Zealand to a 7-1 buffer.

THE PITBULL CONTINUES TO BARK

However, Spithill remained typically bullish and in the post-racing press conference delivered a crystal ball moment few who followed the regatta will forget.

"I think the question is: imagine if these guys lost from here? What an upset that would be. They have almost got it in the bag.

"That's my motivation. That would be one hell of a story, that would be one hell of a comeback and that's the sort of thing that I'd like to be part of.

"We feel we have got just as much chance of winning this and we are going to do every thing we can."

That was still not enough on day eight as Dean Barker and his crew took the only race to move to match point.

At that stage, the America's Cup's return to New Zealand seemed in the bag.

THE FIGHTBACK BEGINS

Oracle were not about to wave the white flag, winning the lone race the following day before day 10 produced the defining moment of the series.

In light wind conditions, the Kiwi boat looked on its way to wrapping up the Auld Mug, stretching to a lead of more than a kilometre coming down the fourth and penultimate leg.

But, in a moment which signalled a collective groan across the length and breadth of New Zealand, the limited breeze meaning the 40-minute time limit expired with the finish almost in sight.

It was a big escape for Oracle, and just the lifeline they needed to set up their miraculous comeback.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Sure enough, the holders won the second race of the day, following that up with two more victories on race-day 12 to close the gap to 8-5.

Oracle racked up yet another the next day, and then as the series moved into its third week proved just how far momentum had swung.

Spithill forced two penalties on Barker in the start box before going on to win race one, while Team New Zealand led at mark one in race two (setting a new record speed of 47.5 knots in the process) only to meekly give up the lead on the first upwind leg as the match moved to 8-8.

Although Kiwi fans still held out hope, there was an air of inevitability about the winner takes all final race, Barker again getting around mark one in front before Oracle stormed past and claimed a 44-second win to complete the unthinkable.

THE AFTERMATH

An understandably devastated Kiwi skipper was almost at a loss to described what had played out.

"It's very hard to fathom ... but we felt we didn't leave anything on the table today," said Barker, who in February 2015 was dropped as helmsman before confirming his departure from the team the following month.

"We knew that upwind we had a fight on our hands against a boat that's fast, it's hard to swallow..

"Look back two weeks ... the gains they have made were phenomenal. We're probably lucky they didn't do it earlier."

The contrast in emotions to his counterpart could hardly have been more stark, Spithill and his team revelling in wild celebrations.

"To come from behind, these guys just showed so much heart.

"They can make you look good. They are so great . . . to be facing the barrel of the gun at 8-1 what did the guys do? They didn't even flinch."

Who will do just that when it counts in the cup rematch remains to be seen.

But, with the two boats appearing evenly matched for speed, don't be surprised if we are in for another series of classic proportions.

 - Stuff

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