Against The Wind: One of the Greatest Comebacks in Sports History
A major Wall Street Journal feature reported by Stu Woo maps the extraordinary comeback by Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA against Team New Zealand to win the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay. The America’s Cup, first held in 1851, is believed to award the world’s oldest international sporting trophy. But last year’s competition, expected to be humdrum, turned into one of the most remarkable ever.
“Jimmy Spithill and his 10 teammates put on their crash helmets and flotation vests and climbed aboard the AC72, a menacing, 13-story black catamaran capable of near-highway speeds. As a powerboat pulled them into the bay for Race 5 of the 2013 America’s Cup, Mr. Spithill shot a glance at the Golden Gate Bridge. It was shrouded in fog.
“An unfamiliar, uncomfortable feeling was tugging at him. Mr. Spithill, skipper of Oracle Team USA, the richest and possibly most prohibitively favored team in the history of the world’s most famous yacht competition, had lost three of the first four races. Something was wrong with the way the Oracle boat was performing. Now he was facing the unthinkable: His team might lose.
“Nobody had expected this. Had team Oracle placed too much faith in the technology? Had its enormous budget lulled the team into overconfidence? Had Mr. Spithill gotten away from the lessons he had learned in Elvina Bay?
“After getting blown out again on the upwind leg, Oracle lost by a margin of 47 seconds, and later that day, lost Race 7 by 66 seconds, its worst finish yet. New Zealand now needed just three more wins—and it had 12 chances to get them.
“Already, the fans who gathered on the waterfront to watch the races had started cheering for the Kiwis. Unless Mr. Spithill figured out how to sail faster upwind, the affable sailor would forever be remembered as the engineer of his sport’s greatest flop.
“What especially galled him was the New Zealand team’s apparent contempt for Oracle’s approach. The managing director of the New Zealand team, Mr. Dalton, was openly disdainful of the costly, high-tech catamaran Oracle had chosen. The Kiwi boat had a similar, but more rugged, design.
“Mr. Spithill didn’t relish losing the Cup to a team who could say, rightfully, that their win represented a triumph for the craft of sailing. With his team’s prospects getting dimmer by the hour, Mr. Spithill decided it was time to stop obeying the computers and start thinking like sailors.”