x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Oracle’s tack turns the tide

Oracle Team USA's victory in the America's Cup may not have been a popular one in the Emirates, but their comeback was remarkable.

Oracle Team USA, with captain by James Spithill, celebrates onstage after defending the America's Cup as they rallied to win eight straight and beat Emirates Team New Zealand at San Francisco bay.   Justin Sullivan / AFP
Oracle Team USA, with captain by James Spithill, celebrates onstage after defending the America's Cup as they rallied to win eight straight and beat Emirates Team New Zealand at San Francisco bay. Justin Sullivan / AFP

Yachtsmen and sailors in the UAE can be excused for failing to celebrate the remarkable victory by Oracle Team USA in the America’s Cup. It was Oracle, and the team’s owner, Larry Ellison, who took away the 2010 America’s Cup from Ras Al Khaimah.

The software magnate, thought to be the third-wealthiest man in America, successfully blocked the plan by the Swiss team Alinghi, who held the Cup at that time, to base the event at RAK in February 2010.

The northern emirate was thought to have spent in excess of Dh440 million on infrastructure, ahead of the expected competition, secure in the knowledge that all previous holders of the Cup had been able to choose where they would defend and basking in Alinghi’s glowing assessment that RAK in February had “perfect” weather and wind conditions.

However, Ellison’s lawyers argued that the America’s Cup Deed of Gift did not allow for a February race in the northern hemisphere and a New York judge agreed, in December 2009, barring RAK from hosting the world’s oldest international sports competition.

The Spanish port of Valencia was, curiously, exempted from the ruling, apparently because it had hosted the previous competition, and Alinghi and Oracle put to sea in the western Mediterranean rather than the eastern Arabian Gulf.

Ellison’s team won and the Cup went to the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco.

Thus, it is safe to assume that Oracle was not a popular preference, here, especially with the challenger yacht carrying the name Emirates Team New Zealand. And for quite some time, it looked like the team backed by Dubai’s airline and New Zealand’s government would easily take the Cup down under; the Kiwi yacht raced to an 8-1 lead in a best-of-17 competition.

But in a remarkable turnaround, no matter rooting preferences, Oracle fine-tuned their yacht in the middle of the competition, eventually finding a more felicitous distribution of weight and sail, and ran off eight consecutive victories to retain the Cup.

Observers were left straining for a sports parallel to such a dramatic reversal of fortune; British writers tended to cite the 2012 Ryder Cup “Miracle at Medinah”; Americans gravitated towards the Boston Red Sox return from a three-game deficit to defeat the New York Yankees in a best-of-seven baseball playoff series in 2004.

By the end, Oracle was simply faster, especially upwind, and the addition to Oracle’s crew of the British tactician Ben Ainslie made for an unstoppable force and a riveting conclusion to an event that, 10 days earlier, had looked noncompetitive as well as expensive and obscure.

The competition Ellison created called for 72-foot catamarans that could rise up on hydrofoils and attain speeds of up to 50 knots. However, the technology and materials needed for the boats were so expensive that only three challengers arrived at San Francisco Bay.

The America’s Cup has always been about the latest technology, but boats running on water, rather than through it, like exotic insects, seemed unnatural and more than a little dangerous; the well-known British sailor Andrew Simpson drowned when the Swedish yacht overturned during a training session, in May.

The start of the competition was marred, too, by a cheating scandal involving Oracle during testing, and an unprecedented two-race penalty was levelled against Ellison’s team.

Given New Zealand’s early dominance, which came with the two-race head start, a limp conclusion (for anyone outside of New Zealand) seemed assured when the Kiwis’ lead reached 8-1, one shy of victory.

Then came the turnaround, and Oracle’s remarkable run of eight victories and boisterous celebration by the boat’s 11-man international crew that came from seven countries, with four from Australia, including the skipper, James Spithill. Where do Oracle and Ellison go from here?

All things considered, a race involving traditional monohulls — in the water, not on it — would be preferable. It would make for cheaper, safer and easier-to-understand racing, almost certainly including more competitors.

And where should the defence be staged? Ellison refused to say if he has chosen a site, but he recently purchased 98 per cent of the Hawaiian island of Lanai, and a competition in the deep Pacific is possible.

Or it could return to San Francisco Bay, where spectators watched the races from land.

Or perhaps Ellison could shock everyone and settle old accounts by bringing the America’s Cup to Ras Al Khaimah.

And the Emirates’ sailors might even forgive him for 2010.