Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup on Wednesday in a startling comeback. Two weeks ago, Emirates Team New Zealand led 8-1, and experts, including the Wall Street Journal’s Stu Woo, believed that the race for the cup was over. Woo returns to Only A Game to explain this miraculous turn of events.
BL: Stu, what happened?
SW: Look, I had my bags packed, my tickets booked, and so did all the other journalists in the media room especially the ones from New Zealand. It turns out we were completely wrong. Oracle won eight in a row. It was one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history. It goes right up there with, I think, the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
BL: Well, I don’t want you to get too technical on us here, but the US team didn’t just go out and buy another boat right?
SW: No. The great thing about this though is that you can tweak a boat between a race. This isn’t like the Olympics. This is also an equipment race. If you can find someway to get a little more speed out of your boat between the races, you can pull off a comeback like this.
BL: And tell me at least a little about how the US team did that.
SW: There are two things they did. The first thing was they got a lot more aggressive with the gambling with the wind conditions. And let me give you an example, there is a long pole in front of the boat that is used for a sail that’s only for light wind. They were sailing with that for the first week and there was only strong wind then, but it’s sort of like carrying an umbrella with you when the forecast calls for only a 40 percent chance of rain. So, in the second and third weeks of racing they ditched the umbrella. And they said, ok, if it rains well you know game over, but it didn’t rain.
The other thing they did — they were sailing upwind in this mode that was taking the most direct route towards the upwind mark. New Zealand was taking a less direct route, but they were able to go a lot faster because these boats have this ability to balance on these boards called foils. And to do that you have to take a less direct route upwind, but this way you get to go faster. It turns out going faster in the less direct route is better.BL: We spoke two weeks ago about what winning the America’s cup would mean to New Zealand, a sea faring nation if ever there was one. What does winning it mean to the US where yacht racing is not among the most popular competitions?
SW: That’s a great question. There were 19 races in this America’s Cup and there were not a whole lot of American fans until race 19. A lot of band-wagoners showed up and to be fair they were great. Look whatever happens afterwards, this was a success for Larry Ellison. This was the best possible outcome. He gets to keep the America’s Cup and he got a nation very briefly to tune into a yachting race. If sailing can’t take off after this, I don’t know what it needs.
BL: And Larry Ellison of course is the billionaire who sponsored the boat.
SW: Exactly and he spent more than $100 million to win this race.
BL: As we established in our earlier conversation, lots of the crew members on Oracle are New Zealanders and then there’s a Brit and some Australians. So did New Zealand sort of win even though they lost?
SW: I don’t think you can say they won. All those guys in New Zealand were ready to party. They had booked vacations to just celebrate this victory and they were on the brink of celebration for a week. In a way they did win. They had less money and they were still able to push it to the brink. But you’ve got to be disappointed. How do you not win one out of eight match point races?
BL: We have gotten emails from listeners suggesting that Oracle’s victory constitutes the greatest comeback in America’s Cup history. Are they right?
SW: Technically they’re right. There was the 1983 America’s Cup where Australia was down 3-1 and then they won the next three, but that was a best of seven series. This was a best of 19 series that the United States won, so I would have to give the edge to Oracle this year.