HAMILTON, BER – The #battleofbermuda is on. The smack-talking sailors have had their fun on Instagram, with ORACLE TEAM USA skipper Jimmy Spithill posting a cartoon of a bald eagle about to dig its talons into a kiwi bird, and EMIRATES TEAM NEW ZEALAND cyclor Blair Tuke responding with a cartoon of a slim kiwi on a bicycle speeding away from a perplexed-looking eagle. Our favorite was the NZ Herald cartoonist's response to the other two – all three are below.
Parts have been flown in from New Zealand for both 50-foot foiling catamarans (remember when the constructed-in-country clause in the Deed of Gift was a thing? So do we).
The Kiwis' cat has been fully patched up after its heartstopping pitch-pole in the challenger semifinals left its wingsail smashed up and three crewmen in the water.
Thursday shore crew were seen carrying some spare made-in-the-USA bows over to their stablemate, SoftBank Team Japan, aka Oracle Team Japan, perhaps in a sleight of hand to have a backup boat ready in case Spithill has a smashup with Burling. Of course, the Protocol allows this for the defender but not the challenger.
In short, it's time to sail the 35th America's Cup on Bermuda's Great Sound, which, while lovely in its turquoise hue, hardly constitutes the home waters of the America's Cup trustee, the Golden Gate Yacht Club. But you knew that from our previous posts.
It's a rematch, or grudge match, of the mind-blowing 2013 Match, when OTUSA rallied from an 8-1 deficit to win eight straight races in one of the greatest comebacks in sports, winning 9-8.
And it's not a traditional America's Cup by any means. Not only did OTUSA get to sail against the challengers, but it won the "qualifiers" and with it a "bonus point." That's actually a negative point for ETNZ, meaning the Kiwis must win eight races to get the Auld Mug back to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron while OTUSA need win only seven races to keep it in Larry Ellison's hands.
Fair? No, but it's the golden rule: He who has the gold – in this case the silver – makes the rules.
OTUSA remains the favorite, both with the Las Vegas sports books and with SAILING ILLUSTRATED's editorial team.
Here's a breakdown of AC35, which opens Saturday with Races 1 and 2, followed Sunday with Races 3 and 4, and then no racing until the following Saturday and Sunday (on NBC in the USA):
ORACLE TEAM USA – The American-flagged entry, which has precious few Americans on its race crew, beat ETNZ twice in the qualifiers. The first time was by six seconds in a race with two lead changes. The second time was by a substantial 29 seconds in the victory that clinched the "bonus point." That left people wondering how the Kiwis could get smoked in a race that meant so much. OTUSA lost twice in the round-robins, both times to ARTEMIS RACING, who were eliminated by the Kiwis in the Challenger Finals. Spithill, of course, goes for the jugular both on and off the water. Who could forget him crushing poor Dean Barker at a news conference while OTUSA was down 7-1 in 2013? Spithill has already started with the mind games by pointing out that ETNZ made fundamental mistakes during its two losses to Ellison's crew, and that the OTUSA tactician setup with Tom Slingsby is, Jimmy says, much better than the Kiwi's.
Why OTUSA could win: Spithill is confident and aggressive and is expected to test Burling not only in the prestart, but all the way around the course. And they have shown across a wide range of conditions that they have speed to burn. And we suspect they still have some "speed cards" that they are holding in reserve, to say nothing of the ample resources to keep improving race by race same as in 2013.
It'll be hard to beat the OTUSA Aussie brain trust of Spithill, Slingsby and wing trimmer Kyle Langford. They have a multiple Cup winner in General Manager Grant Simmer (yet another Aussie), who's first Cup win was as navigator for AUSTRALIA II when they ended NYYC's 132-year Cup hegemony in 1983 – before Burling was born. Ian Burns (AUS/USA) is the Cup's best performance analyst, foil guru Paul Bieker (USA) was key to OTUSA's 2013 comeback and is more important to the team's success than ever. Boat builder Mark Turner (NZL) leads the best shore team in Cup history (thanks, in part, to Ellison's ample funding), thus assuring OTUSA will have the best prepared and most robust yacht. Then there is Russell Coutts, CEO of ACEA who also remains CEO of OTUSA; he's won a few Cups, and knows how to manipulate the rules to his team's advantage almost in his sleep. Then there is Larry Ellison's win-at-all-cost mentality ("either you win or you are first of the losers") and, sorry to repeat, his virtually unlimited resources.
Why they won't win: They almost certainly will. But again, if not for one fluky day on San Francisco Bay in September 2013 AC35 would have been contested in Auckland. A string of very light-air race days could result in the Kiwis winning more races than we expect, and maybe even taking the Cup home. In AC35, more than ever the teams will indeed need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and how hard, and a superb one at that so you make the right early-morning choice of dagger foils. There's nobody better in the world than ETNZ's Dr. Roger "Clouds" Badham, and if light air prevails he could, er, tip the balance in favor of the Kiwis.
EMIRATES TEAM NEW ZEALAND – The Kiwis revamped their syndicate after the 2013 debacle, including firing Barker and bringing on Burling and Tuke. The also went lone wolf, refusing to join the other challengers in kowtowing to America's Cup czar Russell Coutts, who, as we mentioned above is, remarkably CEO of both the America's Cup Event Authority and OTUSA (imagine if the commissioner of baseball also owned the New York Yankees). ETNZ are also doing this on a shoestring budget, despite receiving a multi-million dollar cash payout from ACEA after a secret arbitration decision went in the Kiwi's favor. This will be a critical juncture for ETNZ. While the Kiwis are in the match for the sixth time in the last seven editions of the Cup, they haven't hoisted it in victory since 2000. They lost in the 2003, 2007 and 2013 Matches, and another loss could put the small country's future AC efforts in jeopardy.
Why ETNZ could win: They've sailed flawlessly at times, absolutely nailing most of their foiling tacks and jibes, and mark roundings. They are the only team to complete a race (in fact, essentially three) with 100% Fly Time. They've looked strong in light air, and there could be light conditions the first weekend and beyond. Burling has been unflappable, even after the pitch-pole capsize against GBR, and skipper/wing trimmer/part-time tactician Glenn Ashby is one of the world's best multihull sailors, if not the best ever. Their "cyclors" may provide a small edge over OTUSA's hybrid grinding system.
Why they won't win: As talented as they are, and as much as the rest of the world (including, seemingly, most sailors in the USA) probably want them to take down OTUSA, at the end of the day the Kiwis probably don't have enough all-around horsepower to beat the Ellison/Coutts/Spithill juggernaut. And, while we think the world of Burling, Ashby, Tuke, et al., they are still working for Grant Dalton, and when the pressure comes on his response, at least in the past, was not auspicious. Does Grumpy Grant have the leadership skills finally to win the Cup? That, more than anything, may be the ultimate question.
Bottom line, SAILING ILLUSTRATED's prediction – GGYC/OTUSA successfully defend the 35h America's Cup by a score of 7-3.