Peter Isler shares his thoughts on AC34
Sir Ben Ainslie is no stranger to comebacks and the mindset required to overcome setbacks, as he stated just yesterday following another loss to ETNZ in Race 11, “I think you have to keep believing. We’re obviously in a very difficult position, but we’ve proven we can win races—we’ve got to win a lot more races to get even with the Kiwis, but it's a possibility.”
Mindset or not, the reality is that today the 34th America’s Cup is likely to become the Kiwi Cup. Dawn Riley, former America’s Cup sailor, commented that, in her book, there’s not a whole lot Oracle Team USA could have done tactically to save the day; it was more of a matter of consistency, “A tiny bit of speed deficit was compounded on one race by a bad start, or coming off foil at exactly the wrong time in another, or expecting the wind to be lighter in another.”
She concurred, “The jury decision didn't hurt in points really, but I'm thinking it hurt more than we realized in distraction.” And, in town for the Rolex Big Boat Series, renowned tactician Peter Isler weighs in on just that which has plagued the American team from the outset, but also how they’ve made the best of it to put on a show like sailing’s never seen before.
Oracle’s starts were more favorable in the earlier part of the series—what do you think has attributed to their less successful starts since?
PI: The one semi-obvious thing was they came out with a short bowsprit. I think that may have been due to the fact that the wind instruments that are now on the end of the bowsprit—when you bring them all the way back in there, there’s just tons more disturbance, and they didn’t take the time to learn how to recalibrate them. I’m sure they’re using some sort of wind direction number to help them get the timing right at the start, when to pull the trigger, etc. It just looked like they didn’t have one piece of data when they cut the bowsprit off—their timing was all off. It could have been due to over-reliance on electronics that were no longer as tuned up as they had been when the instruments were out in more of the free flow of the boat.
Oracle has improved 100 percent, and they’ve been in the chase ... but just unable to nail it at crucial points in the race. Your thoughts?
PI: A good friend of mine, Vince Brun, once said, “When you have boatspeed then you look like the world’s best tactician. When you don’t have good speed, it’s impossible to have good tactics.” In some ways it's true. A lot of times the simplistic thing to do is to look at the boats and say, “They’re more or less even, therefore when they go right and left and back together again, it’s all tactics.”
But, that’s an over-simplification, and there’s a boatspeed factor that’s mixed in there. One thing when you’re analyzing it, it’s dangerous to attribute all or nothing to boatspeed. That said, the problem with these boats, especially upwind, is that the tacks are costly (even though they are tacking pretty well now). Because of the short boundaries—and we saw it with the 45s—once you pick your gate, you’ve pretty much set up your strategy/race positioning for almost the whole beat, unless you want to spend another tack, you’re going to go right or left to the boundary then bang off of it and boundary back.
If you tack in the middle of the beat, it’s a pretty rare thing. Then add in the mix of San Francisco Bay and the fact that the current on that part of the course can, with changing tides, be completely the opposite direction on the right edge to the left edge. It’s an interesting challenge, and I think all the sailors are trying to get it right, and sometimes they don’t because of the wind shifts or the current being a little bit different to what they expected. And of course when the boats come close and you have a crossing situation in the dial downs etc., then it shifts over to boat-to-boat tactics which is as much the helmsman as it is the tactician. You think of Jimmy as being the battler, the boxer etc., but Dean’s been at times just as aggressive as Jimmy.
How much can be attributed to Oracle’s capsize as a reason that they’re not as polished as the Kiwis?
PI: Two things: The Kiwis had a couple of weeks advantage by learning to foil first and really developing it in secret before any of the other teams cottoned onto it. They did a really good job of maintaining that advantage that they have. At the same time, the superpower, our home team, had a huge setback with their capsize that precluded them from being able to play catch up even when they did cotton onto the foiling. The foiling totally changed the game of this America’s Cup. Even the designers admit that they are accidentally what they [the boats] are now. They didn’t intend—at least the version one hulls—to be riding above the water or foiling upwind. The Americans lost any chance they did have of getting on with the foiling game early because the boat broke, a double whammy.
What are your thoughts on these boats as ideal match-racing boats?
PI: There is no ideal match racing boat, it’s like horses for courses, it’s like what’s your favorite, there is no ideal horse. All of us, from the spectators, the media, the viewers, to the sailors, are all almost daily getting more into these boats match racing. It is spectacularly fun to watch. It’s the coolest match racing I’ve ever seen. I think they’re great, there’s obviously other issues and considerations beyond how cool they are, but in terms of a match-racing boat, they’ve got everything—they’re manueverable enough that they can play some tactical games. It’s not all the subtleties you get with a heavy keelboat that goes really deep downwind and the trailer can’t attack the leader by throwing bad air on them because they’re going so fast, but I think the whole new game is pretty darn cool. I love it, and if you asked me, you, or the viewers just back in the Louis Vuitton Cup, the answer would have been completely different. Good on these two teams to show us really what these these things can do.
How’s Ben doing at the back of the boat?
PI: He’s a leader and competitor, and he’s in the perfect position really right now. From my perspective, he was hired to help the team and bring more experience on board, but I also saw him hired to put him on ice to keep him out of the hands of the enemy. With this awkward situation with JK [John Kostecki] Ainslie had this totally unexpected opportunity to show everybody what he could do. He’s super smart, a great sailor, and he’s done a really good job of stepping in.
When Cheese got taken out of the mix—Cheese, JK, Spithill were a powerful team; they’d won an America’s Cup together, done all the ACWS events together—I don’t think we really appreciated just how much of a setback that was. All of a sudden, lose a few races, confidence ... who knows what really went on within the team, but certainly Ben has come in and kept Jimmy happy. That’s what a tactician does—it’s skipper entertainment (laughs). Maybe it’s now a Ben, Kyle, Jimmy thing.
At that level, you can talk about Ainslie or Kostecki, it’s plug and play. Put any one of those guys on any boat, and they’re going to look and sound good. There are times that with boatspeed and other issues where—rarely—one of these guys has a bad day here and there, but either of those guys are winners and I’d be happy to have either one of them onboard. At the end of the day it comes down to a kind of comfort level—the kind of "X Team" factor rather than who is making a better decision at the time, it’s more the chemistry.