HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand will be hoping to mimic “Black Magic”, the boat with which they beat the U.S. to lift the America’s Cup in 1995, when they take on Oracle Team USA in Bermuda.
Although the U.S. team have the odds in their favor going into the first races of the 35th America’s Cup starting on Saturday, the New Zealand crew may yet take the wind out of their sails.
The U.S. holders of the oldest trophy in international sport not only go into the first-to-seven event with a bonus point for topping the qualifiers series, they are also racing on “home” waters, having based themselves in Bermuda since winning the sailing’s most prestigious prize in San Francisco in 2013.
But skipper Jimmy Spithill and his crew, although outwardly confident, will not be taking anything for granted in their quest for a third successive win after seeing how New Zealand have performed to become the challenger for the “Auld Mug”, which was first claimed in 1851 by the schooner “America”.
“I think you’ve got two of the best teams in the world going head-to-head in a real heavyweight battle and man, ... I’m expecting it’s going to be one hell of a fight,” Spithill said in a skippers press conference on Friday.
New Zealand’s biggest shock so far was to introduce a revolutionary cycling system on their 50-foot (15 meter) catamaran, which allows “cyclors” rather than traditional “grinders” to generate the hydraulic power needed to operate its high-tech “foils” and towering “wing” sail.
The U.S. team responded by introducing a hybrid position aboard its own boat, allowing tactician Tom Slingsby to pedal when needed to pump more oil into the hydraulic system.
Aside from how they sail and who wins the tactical battles, there are other differences that could decide victory, including how they control their wings and foils, the hydraulic systems and the way the work is shared out between the six crew.
Throughout the build-up to the America’s Cup Match series, New Zealand’s Peter Burling has looked the most relaxed helmsmen among the five challenger crews, although qualifying has been testing, and included a near-catastrophic capsize.
“It’s been a massive effort to get this far, we’ve faced a lot of adversity over the last couple of weeks with things like the capsize ... but our shore crew have really dug deep to get us a boat that’s very close to 100 percent for the finals,” Burling said on Friday.
Burling’s ease on the water may be because he has most time to sail the boat and focus on tactics. Sitting immediately in front of him is skipper Glenn Ashby, who may appear to be playing on a games console but is in fact operating the boat’s giant “wing”.
Further along the narrow hull of the catamaran is Blair Tuke, Burling’s Olympic partner in the 49er skiff, who both cycles and adjusts the rake of the foils which allow the boat to lift out of the water and “fly”.
This America’s Cup is a revenge match for New Zealand, who lost in 2013 after seeing an 8-1 lead overturned.
For one skipper who has raced against both teams, the final will be a battle between experience and determination against raw talent and confidence.
“On paper Jimmy Spithill has a lot of skill for that (America’s Cup racing) and it’s very natural for him,” Groupama Team France skipper Franck Cammas told Reuters on Thursday.
“But Peter Burling is young and he learns very quickly and he has a good boat ... he’s very confident with the speed of his boat and with that you can compete better,” Cammas said, adding that Spithill’s ability to come out fighting even when his back is against the wall will count for a lot.
“It’s important to have psychological stability and Jimmy looks like even if he’s in a bad position, he can always come back,” Cammas said.
Writing by Alexander Smith in London; Editing by Pritha Sarkar