Why no one will tell you, but here’s my guess – and why

It’s risky, but I’ll take a punt and declare who I think will win the America’s Cup. But first a little background and a few suggestions on what I believe will be the key issues of the 34th Cup.

Here in San Francisco you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone who will declare with any confidence the winner of the 34th America’s Cup, ‘it’s just too close to call’, they say.

From seasoned Cup journalists, to those involved in the organisation who have watched the boats race and train on the Bay, the differences in boat speed are now believed to be so small that the winning margin could come down to several other factors. Boat handling is right up there, as is reliability and then there’s the issue of whether and when the teams play the latest trump card, foiling upwind.

In developing a view on the issue as to who will be quickest you have to take a look at where these teams have come from as both have approached the task of winning the Cup from opposite corners. The Kiwis started with developing a robust platform that traded performance for reliability and good manners in order to ensure that the crew could keep the boat the right way up as they learned how to handle a big powerful cat. From there they have refined their boats, to pimp their ride. Among the latest add-ons are: an end plate for the jib and some spoilers on the transom, both aerodynamic enhancing packages.

There is little doubt that the Kiwi boat we see now is a far quicker machine than the one that arrived for the Louis Vuitton challenger series two months ago.

Oracle meanwhile, started form a familiar point for Ellison’s cash rich campaign with all guns blazing, their deep pockets and comprehensive list of talented and experienced personnel allowing the team to build a refined vehicle from the start. The trouble was, their first boat was so advanced that the crew struggled to cope with it and crashed it spectacularly in October. This accident was a ‘ctrl-alt-delete’ moment for the team as they re-booted their campaign. Since then they have proceeded with more caution but with two beautifully refined and advanced boats. Their weakness, if they have one, is in boat handling and reliability. Just a couple of weeks ago Ben Ainslie’s rudder broke off during a pre-start practice. Last week they damaged their wing and were forced to cut short a day’s training. Problems that were overcome, but suggest that reliability is still an issue for the home team.

The overall result is that the two teams have converged in a way that we rarely see in America’s Cup. Usually teams start with designing to a common rule before diverging as their basic concepts take shape. Th e reverse is true this time around which is one of the reasons why we’re all finding it so hard to pin point a winner.

Then there’s the evidence on the water. From what I’m hearing from those that have tracked these boats closely, not least the race management team who sees the data of both boats, their straight line speeds are very similar. Yesterday was a case in point as both boats lined up for a downwind scorch. Like two boxers eyeing each other up before the big match, it is risky to take too much from this run as the two boat sprint was more likely to be an exercise in posturing to see who would blink first. Who was holding back? Or were they? We simply don’t know, other than both reached the bottom gate at the same time.

Both teams are equally well staffed with experts in all areas and a similar tally of hours on the water of 100 days or more in the 72s. Picking a winner is still no easier, but in the end I believe it will come down to who handles the pressure best.

But before that, what are the other issues that we should look out for in the first race?

This will be aggressive. The Kiwis chose to enter from the port side, the favoured entry nowadays as you get a 10sec head start into the box.
With so much emphasis on the start and the first leg, winning the start and getting the leeward end of the line but with clear air to get to the first mark first is essential.

First mark
The bear away. Get there first and you’re part way to a win.

The first gybe
This is crucial. As any A-sail sailor will know, sailing deep and fast is the winning move. Gybing in breeze while sailing deep and remaining on the foils (if it’s a foiling day) should get you ahead allowing you to stay between your man and the mark as you gybe downhill.

Here the course has several set play moves. In a flood tide you have to make for Alcatraz on port tack to get out of the tide. Then you tack onto starboard and head for the mainland shore as fast as you can.

Foiling upwind
This is where I think we’ll see them get up on their foils upwind. Putting the bow down a few degrees and accelerating sufficiently to rise onto the foils will get them across the foul tide ASAP. From what I’m told, foiling upwind happens in 15kts plus of true wind and sees the boats jump from high teens to 20-23 knots.
Once over the other side and out of the tide there’s little need to foil.
I also hear that the comparison in VMG between sailing deep and foiling and sailing high and not, is not very different.

Final windward mark
Once in front a team should be able to maintain its lead for the long downwind leg if they can stay in phase and cover the trailing boat’s gybes. The reach to the finish is s a drag race.

Here lies a potential problem for the opening day. A light gradient breeze from the east will delay the development of the westerly sea breeze. Race officials are confident that we will see up to 15kts but not so confident as to when it will come in. A delay here could cause problems with the second race of the day.

Wind limits
The upper wind limit won’t be an issue for the first two days but if and when it does, the 23knot limit (up from 21knots in the LV final) will see conditions that the Kiwis are comfortable in.

Who will win and why?
Ultimately the Kiwis, but not by a clean sweep. Oracle will win a couple of races, probably early ones and trip up at some point which will trigger a loss of confidence. The Kiwis’ better boat handling and confident team work will see them through the stressful parts of the Cup and give them the winning edge.

There, I’ve said it now. Risky, but in the absence of any clear consensus here in San Francisco, I’m now on a verbal diet in anticipation of having to eat my words.

Racing scheduled to start 1315 local
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Sept 7 1988 – Race 1 Stars & Stripes 88 vs. New Zealand – First catamaran appearance in the America’s Cup Match. Stars & Stripes wins by 18:15


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