Hamilton, Bermuda (AP) — Jimmy Spithill and his mates with Oracle Team USA might need to start tapping out an SOS from the Bermuda Triangle.
The two-time defending America’s Cup champions are foundering badly against hotshot young helmsman Peter Burling and Emirates Team New Zealand, who are threatening to sail — and cycle — away with the oldest trophy in international sports.
The 26-year-old Burling calmly steered the Kiwis’ fast 50-foot catamaran to two more dominating victories Sunday to remain undefeated in the showdown on the Great Sound.
Although they’ve won the first four races, the Kiwis lead Oracle 3-0. Because Oracle won the qualifiers, the challenger started the 35th America’s Cup match with a negative point.
Team New Zealand needs to win four more races to return the Auld Mug to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland, where it resided from 1995-2003. Oracle needs to win seven to keep the silver trophy in the hands of one of the world’s richest men, software tycoon Larry Ellison, who has been watching the shellacking from a team support boat.
Racing resumes Saturday and Sunday.
Well-funded Oracle Team USA — Ellison is worth an estimated $55 billion — has five days to come up with some answers to try to counter the spot-on design innovations by the scrappy, underfunded Kiwis, who nearly folded after their epic collapse in the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay.
“I think it’s pretty obvious these guys are faster and we need to make some serious changes,” a glum-looking Spithill said. “Today I thought we got off the line pretty well, but they were pretty impressive accelerating. … Clearly we need to now put everything back on the table.
“I think these next five days will be the most important five days of the campaign,” he said.
Oracle does have history on its side.
This is a rematch of the epic 2013 America’s Cup, when Team New Zealand, then skippered by Dean Barker, reached match point at 8-1 before Spithill lead Oracle Team USA to eight straight victories for one of the biggest comebacks in sports.
Then again, it could also be a repeat of 1995, when Team New Zealand, then led by skipper Russell Coutts and Peter Blake, sailed a fast boat to a five-race wipeout of Dennis Conner off San Diego to hoist the America’s Cup for the first time. Coutts successfully defended the America’s Cup in 2000 before jumping to Swiss startup syndicate Alinghi of Switzerland and sweeping his former team in 2003.
Coutts has been the CEO of Oracle Team USA since it beat Alinghi in 2010. He’s also the CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority.
“The motivation is always there,” said Spithill, who is trying to win the America’s Cup for the third straight time before he turns 38. “The team’s hungry. They’re a very, very competitive group. But we’re also a very candid group and it’s quite clear we need to make changes.”
Burling, an America’s Cup rookie who has won Olympic gold and silver medals with grinder Blair Tuke, steered the Kiwis to victories of 49 seconds and 1 minute, 12 seconds on the turquoise waters of the Great Sound.
“Today was a really good day for us,” Burling said. “We felt we really improved a lot on yesterday. We tidied up a lot of those little errors we made yesterday around the course and I think that really showed. Out team’s really hungry to keep learning, keep moving forward, keep improving. … We know if we stand still these guys will be catching us.”
So far, the Kiwis and their cycling grinding system have proven too fast for Oracle in light, shifty wind. They’ve also made the right choices on which foils to use on the ends of their daggerboards. The Kiwis used the same foils they did in speeding to two victories on Saturday while the American-backed crew appeared to use two different foils.
The always-crafty Kiwis are using a “cyclor” grinding system. They’ve built four stationary cycling stations into each hull to tap leg power instead of traditional arm power from the grinders to power the hydraulic systems that control the wing mainsail and the daggerboards. Simon van Velthooven, who won a bronze medal in track cycling at the London Olympics, was aboard for Race 3. Olympic rowing champion Joe Sullivan replaced him for Race 4.
As for Oracle’s foil selection, “I thought we made a good step forward,” Spithill said. “I thought we were faster than yesterday but unfortunately it’s just not enough. But we know that. We’re not going to hide from the truth.”
Oracle made an unforced error when its catamaran came off its foils early on the downwind second leg of Race 3. That was enough for Burling to speed away around the seven-leg course.
In Race 4, the Kiwis held a slim lead at the first mark and simply pulled away.