Why the wind limit debate is more about mind games and Oracle’s growing confidence

Until today both teams were playing nicely, going hammer and tongs on the water but giving each other plenty of respect where due for a job well done.

We’ve got used to expressions such as, ‘they did a really great job’, ‘we know they’re strong’, they’ve led the way’ and ‘as so and so said’. Here, more than any Cup I’ve covered there has been a sense that the sailors are enjoying this event more than any other they’ve done, simply for the sheer excitement of sailing boats that are breaking new territory as the Cup is played out.

But today saw a change in the mood. Having made one crucial step towards a comeback and knowing that the postponed second race of the day put more pressure on the Kiwis, Jimmy Spithill was off the ropes for a short break.

The task ahead of his team is still a huge one with seven more perfect races to nail in a row, but Spithill is a fighter, backed up by the come back king Ainslie. Having punished Barker on the water he was now going to put pressure on him under the media spotlight as he threw a wind limit grenade into the mix.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder, Spithill knew he could play to the crowds that had missed out on a second day of afternoon racing while making life uncomfortable for Barker and the Kiwi team. Asking for a change in the rules part way through any sporting competition when you discover you’ve improved in a certain area is hardly a normal strategy, but when you are desperately close to defeat, the slightest advantage may count.

“We sent a letter to Kiwis saying that we’d accept raising the wind limits, or at least that if your start a race you can’t blow it off because we think it would be better for the sport and for the people watching it,” said Spithill.

Barker took one of his characteristic deep inhales that said more about what he was thinking than any facial expression as Spithill continued.

“But it takes them to agree to it,” said Spithill. “At the moment we’re stuck with the wind limits and it’s likely to happen again.”

“It’s an interesting point that James raises,” said Barker. “When the safety recommendations were discussed we were very much in favour of 25 knots being the wind limit. At that stage Oracle wanted it to be 20. The middle ground that Iain [Murray] found was the staggered wind limit 20 then 21 then 23 for the match. At the time we thought it was too low but we accepted it. We were happy to support that.

“It seems a little strange that half way through a series you think that you need to change a wind limit that has been agreed,” he continued. “Previously they wanted a much lower one. Prior to the racing, absolutely we would have agreed, but we don’t think it is right to change it in the middle of an event. It doesn’t seem right to change any rules half way through an event.”

But that was not where the issue stopped.

“We want to race, that’s why we’re here,” replied Spithill. “The fact is that Iain made those recommendations some time ago and when you look at the level of these two teams we’re way above where we were when he made those recommendations. Two of the world’s best teams and a beautiful breeze out there and we have to come ashore. You have to ask yourself, what are we doing out here.

“As I said it keeps two teams to agree and if these guys don’t want to do it then we’ll keep bumping into this problem each day.”

So why had Oracle gone for lower limits initially?

“It was a shock, what happened,[ref Artemis fatality] it was a huge tragedy. But as we’ve both gone along and since the start of this regatta and the confidence both teams have got and how hard we’re pushing, I think both teams are up for it.”

Yet clearly they aren’t.

While Spithill had made his point, he had also delivered sufficient evidence to support Barker’s subtle inference that the issue was more about changing the rules to suit a team’s new found performance.

“When we started this regatta Dean and his guys had a significant edge upwind,” explained Spithill. “Through a lot of hard work we’ve been able to improve the performance of our boat to the point that we’re very competitive around the race track. We believe we’ve got a great boat and we can win it. Tonight we’ll make some changes and that’s the name of the game.”

The clearest indication surely that the new request for modified wind limits was to match their new performance.

So what have they done to change their performance?

It turns out that Oracle is unlikely to have changed as much as we might have thought. Indeed, talking to a few in the know, it appears that the team has been keen to have us, and more importantly the opposition, to think that they are making a number of bigger changes and are on a roll. In fact, I’m hearing that they have changed the angle of attack of the main foils, adjusted the ‘T’ foils on the rudder to accommodate the alteration. The hacksaws and angle grinders have been silent.

The are also trimming the wing with more power in the lower and upper middle panels to generate more power lower down, both of which have allowed them to get up onto foils upwind, but without losing pointing ability. Today was the clearest example of this.

They’ve also spent a good deal of time looking at footage of the Kiwis and re-evaluating how to handle their own boat. The results have now smartened up their performance to such a degree that they feel understandably punchy about the boat they discover they now have.

With that confidence restored and another valuable point on the board, it was time to put even more pressure on their opponents – wind pressure.