SAN FRANCISCO — Defending America’s Cup champion Oracle Team USA could be in deep trouble against scrappy Emirates Team New Zealand.
The American powerhouse was so soundly beaten by the Kiwis in Race 5 Tuesday that Larry Ellison’s syndicate had to call timeout.
Ellison, the software billionaire who runs Oracle Corp., has made crew changes before, and some could be coming after a major blunder by his team let Team New Zealand speed off to a resounding victory of 1 minute, 5 seconds on San Francisco Bay on Tuesday.
Not long before the scheduled start of Race 6, Oracle Team USA radioed in to the race committee that it was playing its one postponement card of the regatta, meaning the race was scrubbed until Thursday.
The Kiwis crushed the momentum Oracle gained with its heart-stopping win in Race 4 on Sunday.
Team New Zealand leads 4 to minus-1 and needs five more wins to claim the oldest trophy in international sports for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
Oracle was docked two points by an international jury and wing sail trimmer Dirk de Ridder was booted from the regatta in the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup. It needs 10 wins to keep the Auld Mug.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill said Oracle Team USA needs to regroup and make some changes. Whether they’re to the 72-foot catamaran, the crew or tactics — or all three — remains to be seen. Oracle has made numerous errors this regatta and Team New Zealand continues to make strong gains sailing upwind.
Either way, it was a stunning move for the well-funded, deep sailing team that won the America’s Cup in 2010.
After Oracle announced it was playing its card, Spithill hopped onto a chase boat and conferred with syndicate CEO Russell Coutts, who won the first two of his four America’s Cups as skipper of Team New Zealand in 1995 and 2000.
Spithill declined to recap that conversation.
“Oh, we were just talking about rugby, weather,” Spithill cracked. “No, I can’t, actually. I’d love to tell you, I really would. But no.”
Asked how safe he feels, the Australian said: “You can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next, mate.”
It’s unlikely Spithill would get the boot. Early speculation was that tactician John Kostecki, a San Francisco native, could get subbed out.
Spithill was asked if Kostecki would be on the boat Thursday, when Races 6 and 7 are scheduled.
“I can’t guarantee anything,” he said. “I probably can’t guarantee I’ll be on there. It’s too early to make a decision right now. It’s really part of the reason why we played the card. We need time to assess our program and the boat. We need to get it heading in the other direction. We’ve got time, fortunately. There are a lot of races left.”
Kostecki usually attends post-race news conference with Spithill. On Tuesday, rising star Tom Slingsby, a gold medalist for Australia at the London Olympics and a strategist and grinder for Oracle, accompanied the skipper.
Spithill said he was just rotating things around and it was too early to say whether Kostecki would be replaced.
Coutts said in a text to The Associated Press that he didn’t think replacing Kostecki was an option.
“But we might look at other options,” Coutts said.
Kiwi skipper Dean Barker seemed a bit stunned when Team New Zealand was told Oracle was playing its card.
“Oracle just pulled the pin, boys,” he told his crew. “Is that 100 percent?”
It was. It was an intriguing development, considering that Oracle Team USA practiced its upwind sailing and tacking on Monday, an off day, while the Kiwis chose to stay ashore.
Wednesday is an off day. Oracle plans to go out and practice. The Kiwis plan to stay ashore, work on the boat and use their simulators to try to improve their starts, the one area where they’re weak.
Spithill said Oracle’s boat is fine, which makes playing the postponement card now that much riskier, in case there is a breakdown later in the regatta.
“We’re not going to go back and massage each other’s egos, I can guarantee you that,” Spithill said. “But you’ve got to be smart about it. If all things were great, we wouldn’t have played it. But we have to be honest with ourselves. We’re very, very candid with each other and we’re very direct. It was obvious that unless we make some changes, there’s a real chance we weren’t going to win the second race of the day.”
Oracle Team USA led on the first two legs Tuesday and then called for a foiling tack, a radical, quick turn around the downwind mark. The crew botched the tack and practically came to a stop, costing it almost all of its 150-meter lead.
“Yeah, I think it was a mistake in the end,” Slingsby said. “We wanted to cover the right-hand side but ideally we probably should have kept going straight and tacked when they tacked.”
Oracle has made a number of mistakes. This was just the latest, and perhaps the biggest.
“In this racing, you only need to make a couple little mistakes here and there and they add up very quickly,” Spithill said. “As we’ve seen in these boats, what’s good or bad, depending on if you’re in the lead or behind, you make a mistake, you get absolutely punished for it.”
Barker steered Team New Zealand into the cone of Alcatraz, which offers protection from the flood tide as the boats sail upwind toward the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time the 72-foot catamarans had passed Alcatraz, the Kiwis were in the lead. Their advantage was more than 300 meters halfway up the leg.
“Obviously we’re very pleased to take the win,” Barker said. “It’s difficult because these guys are getting off the line well and leading around mark one, so they get to dictate a little bit what’s going on down the run. But the boat is going really well upwind. The guys are doing a really, really good job with the maneuvering, tacking and everything. We’re taking some pretty nice little gains there.”
Besides being hurt by mistakes, Oracle Team USA continues to struggle upwind against the faster New Zealand boat. Once Barker took control, the Kiwis sailed higher and faster against the wind. Oracle had no chance to catch up.
Spithill won the start and flew around the reaching first mark at more than 43 knots, or just more than 50 mph. He led by 4 seconds around the buoy and onto the downwind second leg.