Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Americas Cup Day 3: Disaster for Oracle

It was a beautiful day on the Bay, with plenty of wind and lots of current at the start of the day's racing. These were perfect conditions for the local boys to show the Kiwis about racing on San Francisco Bay. It was TNZ's turn to enter the starting box first and they should have had the advantage, but Oracle was able to maneuver into reasonably good position just to weather of TNZ when the starting flag dropped. They accelerated faster than TNZ which was not able to establish an overlap at the first mark. Oracle looked good on that short reach, showing better straight line boatspeed and rounded clear ahead of TNZ. They maintained their lead all the way to the leeward mark. They came in on starboard tack with a comfortable lead and should have simply rounded the mark and hardened up onto a starboard beat and left it to TNZ to tack, and then keep a loose cover on them. Instead, someone in the back of the boat decided to round the mark and tack immediately. Disaster!

Anyone who has ever sailed a catamaran knows they are slow to tack. When you round a leeward mark you want to at least get back up to speed before you throw the helm over. Somehow, the brain trust aboard Oracle forgot this basic rule. So they rounded the mark and tacked all in the same maneuver, and in that moment they gave up their lead, Their thinking was that it was better to stay on the right hand side of the course to avoid the adverse current of the flood tide. Bad thinking. The first rule of yacht racing is to stay between your competition and the next mark. In a colossal brain-fade, the afterguard aboard Oracle ignored this rule and suffered the consequences. TNZ rounded the mark, hardened up on starboard tack and made short work of Oracle's lead. At the first cross they were on port tack and ducked. On the next cross they were well ahead. After that there was no doubt as to who would win this race.

I've sailed many thousands of miles as tactician and made more dumb moves than I can count, so I know how the crew of Oracle feels. In match racing it can be one bad move and your day is over, and if you still have several legs to race, that feeling of self inflicted wounds only grows. Oracle served this race up to the Kiwis on a silver platter and they knew it at the first cross, if not before. I can imagine the crew muttering under their breath as the were grinding in the sheets on that tack. I'm sure the Kiwis were only too glad to snatch this race from the faltering grasp of the Yanks. It was so bad that Team Oracle decided to use their "postponement card" and skip race two today. Watching the body language on that boat, it was clear that this crew was demolished today, and it was probably a good decision for them to bail. Another pounding like that would have been devastating.

So the question is whether Team Oracle has it in them to come out on Thursday and make a race of it. I think this goes to the psychology of the game of yacht racing. Their boat is fast enough. I've heard talk that it's more complicated to sail than the Kiwi boat. Actually, all boats are more complicated to sail until the crew has practiced enough to make all the maneuvers look easy. If Oracle had another six months to sail the boat, all the maneuvers would go flawlessly. However, it's possible that a demoralized crew can start thinking they are riding the slower horse and that can become a self fulfilling prophecy. If they don't fix that now, the crew will begin to expect the other guy to beat them. So the gang at Team Oracle needs to do three things if they want salvage this regatta:
1. Stop going the wrong way.
2. Keep the psychology of the crew from surrendering to defeat.
3. Make sure their strategy is one that can win, and make better tactical decisions.

Once again, I have to say that I am surprised at how tactics rather than simply nailing the start have been the deciding factor thus far in the regatta.

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