USA out of Americas Cup

(See the introductory post for background and my previous race updates)

Well, for the third time in a row, and only the third time in the 150 year history of the America’s cup, an American team will not be in the America’s cup itself.  Team BMW Oracle, the lone USA representative, lost their 5th race to the Italian Luna Rossa team to be eliminated from the Louis Vuitton Cup (the winner of which gets to challenge for the America’s Cup) on Sunday.

Needless to say, I’m very disappointed.

It seems to me that 5 things went wrong for the American team:

  1. Having Chris Dickson run the campaign all by himself:  Chris Dickson is a great sailor who would kick my oversized behind in any and every race in any type of boat in any type of conditions on any day of any week of any year that we were both alive.  So while I don’t want to be overly critical of Dickson, I do think he was the wrong guy to have such ultimate control of the syndicate.  Dickson is a VERY fast sailor and can make any boat go its fastest.  He also seems to have a gift for working with designers to make fast boats.  In that sense, he was the right guy to lead the challenge up through the round-robins.  What Dickson lacks is that killer tactical instinct on the water.  He was just destroyed by James Spithill in the pre-start in all 6 races of the semi-finals.  Dickson looked utterly over his head and seemed shocked that the tactical intensity had made a big jump from the round-robins to the semi-finals.  While any idiot should have been ready for that jump, since it’s just not his strength, he was completely blind-sided.  What the team really needs is a guy like Paul Cayard or John Kostecki (both American I might add… we all seem to have that killer instinct us pesky Americans) on the helm for the pre-start and then hand the helm over to Dickson for the rest of the race so he can make the boat go fast.  This would have the added benefit of having a guy like Kostecki helping Dickson be more aggressive later in the race as well.
  2. Having a boat that was optimized for fast downwind sailing: I’ve touched on this before, but in retrospect, it just killed Oracle to have a boat that was a touch slower upwind than Luna Rossa by trading off fast downwind speed.  It’s really hard to pass downwind unless you’re right on the tail (<50 meters) of the competition rounding the windward mark.  But Luna Rossa did a great job of making sure they used their speed and resulting tactical advantage to work a 70+ meter advantage at each windward mark making it nearly impossible for Oracle to pass downwind.  It’s much more important that the boat be fast upwind that downwind and it showed in the semi-finals.
  3. Late changes to the boat: Along those lines, Oracle made a change to the boat after their come-from-behind win in race 2.  While I’m all for making improvements, that was not the time.  You could tell that after the change, whatever it was, the team just didn’t have the confidence in knowing how they would perform against the Italians.  Sometimes it’s better to know and risk not making an improvement, that being unsure of how you’re boat will perform.  It helps you have confidence in tactical situations knowing what you can and can not get away with.  If the change was indeed a larger rudder as was speculated for better pre-start performance, it’s quite clear that it didn’t make a lick of a difference in the pre-start while hurting their speed all around the race course.  That’s where a guy like Dickson, who lacks that killer instinct and doesn’t realize that it’s not the boat, it’s the personel that makes the difference in those situations, really hurts.
  4. Heavier wind as the regatta continued: I was suprised how little I heard about this in the TV commentary, but I think Oracle was the fastest boat in the light wind, perhaps by a great deal, but their speed advantage went away when the wind picked up.  In the first round-robin, one that was plagued by light wind, Oracle cleaned everyone’s clock, including both Luna Rossa and TNZ.  (OK, they did have one odd loss to the Spanish team).  In the second round-robin when the winds were more stable, although they beat everyone except TNZ (and the Chinese when they breakage issues), their victories were not nearly as decisive and their loss to TNZ showed a chink in their armor.  (As well, it should be noted that their win in round-robin 2 over Luna Rossa was one of the lightest days of round-robin 2.)  Moving to the semi-finals, the only time Oracle looked substantially faster was in the light stuff, and the come-from-behind wind was a fairly light day with dying breeze on the last leg.  With all of that data, I’m pretty convinced that Oracle wasn’t as fast as everyone thought when the wind was “normal”.  To some degree their fast light-air performance decieved everyone, perhaps even Oracle themselves.
  5. Holding cards close to one’s chest:  In this case, it was Oracle’s lack of doing so that was the problem.  They seemed to be out for blood from the start of the first round-robin.  Perhaps they even set their boat up for the lighter conditions of the first round-robin and weren’t able to make the mode changes in the heavier winds that were seen later.  It was almost as if the team didn’t realize that it was nearly a given that they’d be in the semi-finals along with TNZ and Luna Rossa and they’d likely have to beat both of them to get to the Cup.  The round-robins were nearly meaningless except for the 4th spot.  Oracle would have done well to spend more time experimenting and trying odd configurations, going for the kill in the pre-start and going for more tactical flyers during the round-robins knowing it would have cost them a couple of wins instead spending all their effort trying to kill the weak competition.  Sometimes it makes sense to hold one’s cards close to one’s chest and only step up the competition when it counts.  Luna Rossa seemed to time that perfectly and was ready to pounce in the semi-finals.  Despite losing 3 of the 4 races against the other big two in the round-robins, they look really strong going into the finals having destroyed the caught-by-surprise Oracle.

That’s the way I see it anyway.

As I said I’m extremely disappointed.  I was really looking forward to watching the America’s cup from the Golden Gate bridge.  The good news for the Cal Bear fans who read this site is that there will be no more sailing updates, although you can be sure that I’ll be watching the rest of the racing, albeit with a lot less ownership.

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