Shots of Ben Ainslie aboard Oracle today has done little to dampen the speculation of a major afterguard change
Speculation has spread like wildfire overnight as to what will happen to the crew list aboard Oracle for the next two races on Thursday. Will tactician John Kostecki be pulled off the boat as many expect and if so, who will replace him?
Seconds after the team decided to play its joker and dip out of the second race on Tuesday the suggestion that Ben Ainslie might climb out of the team RIB that has been following the racing all week and onto the AC72 started.
When the team headed out onto the race course today for its training session there were plenty of eyes and cameras focused on who was aboard. It didn’t take long before the shots of Ainslie on the handles at the back of the boat with Tom Slingsby started to appear. Could this be the new afterguard for tomorrow?
From what I’m hearing it sounds like the team spent the day evaluating various options in the staff department of which Ben Ainslie was one of a number of possible candidates. The team will decide tonight on the crew for tomorrow.
To put Ainslie on board could well bring a new, quicker thinking dynamic to the afterguard. On several occasions in the AC45s we saw the young guns run circles around the old hands when it came to quick thinking around the cans. The big boats seem to be no different. Terry Hutchinson fell victim to Nathan Outteridge aboard Artemis, while other Olympic dinghy sailors such as Chris Draper, Giles Scott, Iain Percy and others demonstrated that the new AC world was one for those with an intuitive feel for unstable, overpowered platforms.
Where Ainslie might fit into the crew is an issue that’s difficult to resolve. Would he be tactician or would Slingsby slot into this role with Ainslie taking his place in the trimming department? Neither seem obvious choices for a sailor better known for helming than calling the shots. To see him replace Spithill would be highly unlikely.
But while the world focuses on a direct replacement for Kostecki, perhaps the issue is that the team is missing banned sailor Dirk de Ridder more than it’s prepared to admit. Would ‘Cheese’, as he is nicknamed, have allowed Spithill to be talked into a spin tack around the bottom mark, or would he have called for calm? There is little doubt that his role on the boat was more significant than simply a wing trimmer, or would that kind of a call been above his pay grade?
(On that subject, I’m also hearing that that manoeuvre was practiced in the event of the team trailing the opposition and wanting to catch their them out by breaking cover around the mark. Using it when in the lead was not part of the plan.)
If the team is missing Cheese this much the repercussions of the king-post scandal will have done more harm to the team’s chances of winning the Cup than anyone imagined.
What seems most likely however is that Oracle’s problems lie in two key areas not one.
The first is speed. Yesterday they didn’t seem to be able to point upwind and lost over 1500m to the Kiwis upwind. That was the first time we’ve seen them sail this slowly upwind, this was not a tactical issue, something in their setup was wrong. Presumably they can rectify this and get the speed they had back.
The improvement that they’ve shown off the start line and on the downwind leg should give the team heart that things are not all bad. For the last three starts they’ve caused the Kiwis problems and have gradually extended their narrow lead at mark one before defending and extending their lead downwind. Barker knows this and confirmed it yesterday by saying that so long as they could keep close on the downwind leg if they trailed they could keep the race alive.
The second problem for Oracle lies with the crew, but it’s not just about a duff tack at the bottom of one race that put them on the back foot. I wouldn’t mind guessing that tactical errors have been an issue that has been developing throughout the week, yesterday was the final straw. Faced with certain defeat thanks to the new slow setup and a building frustration with the tactical calls, there was no option other than to pull out instead of handing over another point.
So what will happen next?
I fully expect to see some key changes in the crew tomorrow. But I also expect to see the team win a couple of races before the Kiwis take the trophy down under. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking given how much we want to see exciting close racing, but as they keep telling us, Oracle Racing is a team full of talented sailors who have had their backs against the wall many times before. And in that league there are few to rival Ben Ainslie.
Underestimate this team at your peril.