The 34th America’s Cup wrapped up in the waters of San Francisco Bay two days ago, and maybe you’ve heard people talking about what happened. “Greatest comeback in sports history” and “cheating” and “Nancy Pelosi” and all that. Issues of national pride are involved — the U.S. defeated New Zealand, but the American crew included several foreigners — which means you’ll need to have a strong, semi-informed opinion on it. (USA! USA!) We’re here to semi-inform you. What actually went down? Something about big boats, sure, but it’s far more interesting than just that. Here’s a handy guide to knowing your Oracle from your Emirates and what was perhaps the most exciting few days in the event’s 162-year history.
1. Larry Ellison Rules Over All
Being the fifth-richest man in the world is one thing, but since America’s Cup rules allow the winner of the previous Cup to dictate many of the conditions of the next running, Larry Ellison, benefactor of the defending champs, Oracle Team USA, had an even bigger advantage than just money. Failure to win this year’s event — held in his own Bay Area backyard — would have been a monumental embarrassment for the Oracle CEO.
Instead, he got to raise the Cup aloft in front of cheering fans gathered along the city’s Embarcadero, a privilege he paid dearly for. Some estimates put his total personal investment over the years as high as $300 million — but for someone worth $41 billion, that’s chump change. (Despite the good feeling, it hasn’t been decided that San Francisco will host the next America’s Cup — Ellison and city officials will have to negotiate everything again, including who pays for what.)
2. There’s Little That’s American About This Particular American America’s Cup
Only three of the 24 official members of Oracle Team USA are American — skipper Jimmy Spithill is a 34-year-old Aussie himself — including only one actual sailor on the victorious boat. So it is to our brethren in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and other international points east and west that we tip our collective caps and say thanks for making us look good.
3. The Boats Are Completely Insane
As the winner in 2010, Ellison was tasked with formalizing the design of the boats to be raced in the America’s Cup this time around, and this is where being a mega-billionaire really came in handy.
The AC72 (“72” for its length in feet) is an extremely nimble, extremely expensive catamaran that can go twice as fast as the wind, and these 13,000-pound monstrosities were unlike anything ever seen before in the America’s Cup. (It was also a clear advantage to Ellison in that this wallet-busting tech priced out other potential competitors from entering.)
But the boats are also dangerous: A British sailor died in May during an accident in which the boat essentially felt apart, and the most stressful part of watching any of the races in the finals was knowing that boat-wrecking capsizes, crashes, or worse could happen at just about any moment.
4. Like Football, You Were Better Off Watching From Home
It’s hard to get a good vantage point when you’re bayside, but NBC Sports Network did a remarkable job of turning the finals into high-drama television. To that end, they also had an assist from a prominent Bay Area company known as Sportvision. Maybe you’ve never heard of them, but they’re the ones responsible for the NFL’s yellow first-down line and all those cool strike zone graphics on your phone’s MLB app. They adapted the same technology for sailing, and the result was a feeling that if even you didn’t really know everything that was going in the race, you felt like you had a good idea.
5. Team USA’s Cheating Scandal Made Its Historic, Unprecedented Comeback All That More Impressive
Oracle Team USA started off the finals against Emirates Team New Zealand down zero to negative-two. Negative-two! That’s because the team was docked two races for being caught up in the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year history of the race. An international jury implicated several team members for placing prohibited lead weights down in the bowels of Oracle Team USA’s boat during a series of races over the past year that served as a run-up to the finals. Those team members were expelled, a $250,000 fine was issued, and Oracle had to now win 11 races in the best-of-17 finals, whereas Emirates only had to win nine.
That all seemed elementary when Emirates jumped out to a seemingly insurmountable 8-1 finals lead — until Oracle reeled off eight straight wins to keep the Cup. Some have called it the greatest comeback in sports history, akin to the Red Sox winning four straight games over the Yankees after being down 0-3 in the 2004 ALCS. Given the fact that almost any boat of equal size and crew skill can win any given race at a time, It’s hard to argue against that comparison.
6. The Kiwis Kind Of Got Screwed In The End
Except it wasn’t really all that simple. As Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker’s face shows, the Kiwis had their chances to wrap up the Cup. The best shot came one week ago today during Race 13. The racing rules of the America’s Cup can seem convoluted, but here’s the gist: Emirates was chugging toward the finish line and the Cup was all but won — except the fact that they’d gone over the race’s 40-minute time limit before crossing the finish line. (They were less than one nautical mile from winning the whole thing.) Under the rules, once the 40-minute time limit is reached, the race is halted and then must be re-run. Oracle won the next running and all others that followed.