ROYAL NAVAL DOCKYARD, BERMUDA—The much-heralded America’s Cup grudge match between two-time defending champion ORACLE TEAM USA and Emirates Team New Zealand started as the Cup finals did four years ago, with the Kiwis jumping out to an early lead, winning the first two races on Saturday, Day 1 of the international sailing competition.
ORACLE TEAM USA may have felt the effects of not racing for almost two weeks, while the Kiwis had fought through a competitive Challenger series to make it to the Match finals. On Day 1 of the finals, the “puffy” wind conditions on Bermuda’s Great Sound were challenging for both teams, but Team New Zealand made fewer mistakes down the stretch.
In the first race of the one-on-one finals, ORACLE TEAM USA was penalized for jumping the start by a fraction of a second—just 300 millimeters in length, according to race director Iain Murray—forcing it to cede a two-boat-length lead to Team New Zealand. The Oracle team never recovered from that setback, as the Kiwis extended their lead, ultimately sailing to a 30-second win.
The second race was more competitive. Team New Zealand nudged its way to the lead at the start and extended it to as many as 650 meters in what looked to be a dominating performance in its very fast foiling catamaran.
But a masterful foiling tack by ORACLE TEAM USA before Gate 5, coupled with an erratic line taken by Team New Zealand, suddenly moved the Oracle team to within meters of the Kiwis. The two boats were so close as they converged on Gate 5 that ORACLE TEAM USA protested that Team New Zealand had cut it off. But its protest was declined, after which a slow jibe (or change of course) by the Oracle team allowed the Kiwis to extend their lead and ultimately sail to a comfortable second win of the day.
ORACLE TEAM USA hadn’t raced in 13 days—since having won the double round-robin qualifier series against Team New Zealand and four other national teams on June 3. ORACLE TEAM USA skipper Jimmy Spithill acknowledged on June 16, the day before the first finals races, that his team’s layoff could give an advantage to the race-sharp Kiwis.
“You do what you can in training, but as athletes, there’s nothing like a little competition,” Spithill said on Friday. “But that’s the game we play. We know that going into it.”
In Saturday’s post-race news conference, Spithill wasn’t making any excuses. “The race conditions can produce mistakes, make it very challenging to sail our boats well, and at the end of the day we made more mistakes than those guys,” he said. “But we had some opportunities.”
Two Teams with a History
In the last America’s Cup competition, on San Francisco Bay in September 2013, ORACLE TEAM USA earned a dramatic, come-from-behind 9-8 victory over Team New Zealand—overcoming an 8-1 deficit. ORACLE TEAM USA also defeated Team New Zealand in each of their races in the double round-robin qualifiers in late May and early June of this year, earning a tightly contested, come-from-behind victory on the opening day, then sailing comfortably to the win in their second matchup, on June 3.
At that point, ORACLE TEAM USA exited the qualifier races, as the national teams that had finished second through fifth then squared off in the Challenger Semifinals. Team New Zealand later faced and defeated Sweden’s Artemis Racing in the Challenger Finals to earn a rematch against ORACLE TEAM USA in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Match finals.
By virtue of having won the double-round-robin qualifier series, ORACLE TEAM USA entered the Match finals on Saturday with a one-point lead over the Kiwis and needing seven race victories to retain the Cup. With its two wins on Saturday, Team New Zealand now needs six more wins to take the Cup.
The Match finals continue on Sunday, June 18, with two additional races. The races will then pick up next weekend, June 24 and 25, and will continue into Monday and Tuesday, June 26 and 27, if necessary.