On Tuesday, Oracle USA lost again to Team New Zealand. This loss was more painful than the prior ones because the U.S. team was in the lead but made mistakes that let the New Zealand boat take over and win the race. Assigning blame for Oracle's missteps has led to the termination of the team's tactician and over the last several days we have heard more than we ever wanted to about "tacticians."
For some people, this was the first time to consider who tacticians are and what they do. Oh sure, they lurk behind the skipper, checking the computer screen on their arm constantly and grinding away like the big boys at the front of the boat. But they are not the face of the team; like quarterbacks are the face of most NFL franchises, the skippers are the faces of the sailing crews.
Although we think of the America's Cup races as skippers Jimmy Spithill versus Dean Barker, the tacticians can have just as much, if not more, of an impact over the entire race. Sadly this was brought into brutal light on Tuesday when one call by the American tactician, John Kostecki, opened the door to the New Zealand boat getting back in the race. This morning he will watch from the shore as Sir Ben Ainslie, of Olympic fame, takes his spot in the back of the boat as the new tactician for Oracle.
So what is a tactician exactly? To continue mangling our NFL comparison, if Spithill is the quarterback, the tactician is the offensive coordinator. This year's Cup, with boats charging along at over forty miles an hour, a torrent of information coming in from the vessel's sensors and the new smaller course boundaries leaving no time to think, it's too much for one person to take in.
So the skipper focuses on one thing: making the boat go fast. He is working with the trimmers to make sure the sails are set correctly, managing the balance of the boat, and optimizing speed and boat angle to targets set by the computers. The tactician is the one looking ahead to the next "play" if you will, figuring out when to turn, when to take advantage of a change in the wind angle, and for God's sake not going over one of the course boundaries. He works in tandem with the skipper, but most of the calls start with him.
How much can a tactician influence a race? Consider the 1983 Americas Cup. That year, even though Australia II was the faster boat, the Americans took the series to the last race before they finally succumbed. The team of skipper Dennis Conner and tactician Tom Whidden on the American boat almost pulled off a miracle, drawing on years of experience and guile to stay close to the Australians despite the Aussie's speed advantage.
Yesterday, when I found out that Oracle Team USA was replacing their tactician, I did the obvious thing: I called Tom Whidden. If anyone could shed some light on whether this would work, and how these boats were matched, this was the man. And more than anything, I wanted to talk to him about how you keep a boat together and united when under pressure like this.
Part of being a good tactician is keeping the crew level and together, so I asked him how they did that in 1983, facing a faster boat. "Well Dennis and I always synthesized the team aspect and made sure that the team were buddies and were tight no matter what the score was, and I don't know if Oracle has that team sense," he said. Then he referenced the fact that there are only two American's on the Oracle boat this year. "For us we wanted to fight for the United States and now you get hired and you are not necessarily the same nationality, so I don't think there is the same kind of cohesiveness that there was back when we were fighting Australia Two."
So does Whidden think the home side can make the changes necessary to get back into the series? "There are lots of things they can change," opined Whidden. "That's the easy part, it's the confidence in those changes that really matters. For me, watching, it does not look like the speeds are not that far off, so a small change could make a huge difference."
I had danced around the issue, but finally I had to ask. Was changing the tactician the right call?
Whidden didn't even hesitate. "I think John Kostecki is a pretty darn good sailor and I think that was an over reaction. Larry [Ellison, team owner] probably told Russell [Coutts, CEO of Oracle Racing] something had to change, and that is how it manifested itself. But Ainslie is a good team builder so he may bring a positive attitude."
Everyone loves the closing pitcher, and this morning everyone loves Ben Ainslie. So what is Whidden's advice for him, tactician to tactician? "Kostecki seemed to know the right way to go, but he just couldn't seem to get there," Whidden said. "Maybe they made some moves he hadn't thought out before. My advice to Ben would be to get back to basics. When ahead, stay in phase; when behind, get out of phase. But I would really tell Ben to keep it simple."
Tom Whidden makes it really seem that simple and I want to believe him. After all, this is the land of Montana, and Rice, Will Clark hitting it up the middle against Wild Thing, the Giants coming back repeatedly last year in the post season to win the World Series. San Francisco is home to so many comebacks, and this afternoon, we will watch and see if another one gets added that list.