The Battle of Bermuda is on.
The return match between America’s Cup defender Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand promises another epic edition of yachting’s venerable, sometimes venomous competition.
It’s no surprise that the 35th America’s Cup Match, a best-of-13 series which starts on Saturday, sees Team USA and Team New Zealand clashing again on Bermuda’s Great Sound, four years after the Americans’ miraculous comeback — and the Kiwis’ disastrous collapse — in San Francisco.
But there’s still plenty of anticipation for the fireworks the familiar foes — with the jaw-dropping capabilities of their 50-foot foiling catamarans at their disposal — will produce.
The latest generation of twin-hulled America’s Cup catamarans, featuring towering, 78-foot fixed-wing sails, can reach speeds of more than 50 miles per hour (80.5 km/h) as they rise above the water, virtually flying on their hydrofoils.
It’s a spectacle that would be unrecognizeable to America’s Cup sailors of even two decades ago — and other-worldly to those of 1851, when a syndicate of New York businessmen sailed the schooner America across the Atlantic and humbled the best of the British fleet in a race around the Isle of Wight in what marked the birth of the America’s Cup.
New Zealand, now helmed by self-possessed 26-year-old Peter Burling, emerged from a group of five would-be challengers in qualifying that saw the likes of four-time Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie of Britain and Dean Barker — the 2013 Team New Zealand skipper who had taken the helm at SoftBank Team Japan — fall by the wayside.
New Zealand skipper and wing trimmer Glenn Ashby is the lone hold-over among the first-choice crew from the debacle in San Francisco that saw the Kiwis squander an 8-1 lead and fall 9-8 to Oracle.
“The team has been re-built from the ground up and what has been created is a stronger unit than we’ve ever seen before,” Ashby said after New Zealand dispatched Artemis Racing of Sweden in the challenger final.
Ashby acknowledged that after 2013 the Kiwis are highly motivated.
Team USA’s pugnacious Aussie skipper Jimmy Spithill has played up the grudge match angle.
“#BattleofBermuda” was the caption of the cartoon he posted on Instagram this week depicting an American eagle swooping to grasp a cowering Kiwi in its talons.
Comments from USA tactician Andrew Campbell on the team’s website on plans to target New Zealand’s “weaknesses” could also raise hackles.
“They have some serious strengths. They’re going really fast,” Campbell said of what the Kiwis showed in the challenger playoffs.
“So we’re going to have to make sure we’re optimised for every condition that we go sailing in, that we get our weather calls and configurations right.
“We’re going to need to be as fast as we can so we can catch them if we get behind.
“But they’ve also shown that they’re vulnerable in certain positions on the race track in terms of their playbook and their communication. We’re going to make sure we take advantage of those weaknesses.”
– USA already 1-up –
Certainly Team USA will be operating from a position of strength in the decisive series.
For the first time in the 166-year history of the America’s Cup, the defenders took part in challenger trials. They beat New Zealand twice and by virtue of topping the round-robin standings will start one point up in the match.
It’s a reversal of the situation in 2013, when the USA were docked two points for cheating in a pre-America’s Cup series.
It’s been two weeks of resting and testing for Team USA since the end of round-robin competition, while New Zealand battled through the challenger playoffs semi-finals and final.
Burling insists that the Kiwi boat has been even faster since the frightening capsize in the semi-finals that sent three crew members overboard.
They capped their qualifying campaign with a dominant victory over Artemis that showcased their boat’s performance in light winds.
Now they’re eyeing a third New Zealand victory — to go with those claimed by Black Magic in 1995 and 2000.
“That’s why we came to Bermuda, that’s what we’re here to do is bring that Cup back home to New Zealand,” Burling said.
If they don’t, there will be no consolation.
As an aide told Queen Victoria when she asked who came in second in 1851: “Your Majesty, there is no second”. – Agence France-Presse