SAN FRANCISCO – America's Cup has long been a technology arms race.
But the sophisticated, hydrofoiling AC72s deployed in this year's regatta created another contest: an educational showdown akin to grandmasters engaged in a game of speed chess.
"One thing I said at the start is, the team that learns the most during this regatta will win," said Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts on Wednesday, a few hours after his team completed its historic comeback against Emirates Team New Zealand to retain the 34th America's Cup. "I do think that we learned more than team New Zealand throughout this regatta."
That time-compressed learning curve played out even more in this longest-ever America's Cup, which stretched for 19 days.
In the early stages of the competition when New Zealand built an 8-1 lead, it was the faster boat, particularly on the long upwind leg.
By the end of the race -- amply demonstrated again on Wednesday when the U.S. team stayed up on its foils more consistently and blew past New Zealand during the upwind portion – Oracle had completely turned the tables.
The Kiwis improved, too, but not as fast.
"The upwind deltas changed around about a minute and half in a week and a half," said downtrodden New Zealand team manager Grant Dalton. "That's a huge improvement that they've made."
How did Oracle reverse its fortunes – or "unlock the code," in the words of billionaire owner Larry Ellison?
According to Coutts, who has an engineering background and is now 5-0 as part of America's Cup teams, Oracle's shore crew and designers never stood pat in seeking tiny improvements.
Coutts said that among other things they altered the weighting of the boat by bottom loading the 131-foot carbon fiber wing and adjusted the load sharing on the foils.
"The major changes in my view were the balance of the boat," he said. "Then there were a bunch of little changes that just reduced the drag a few kilos here, a few kilograms there, and all the sudden you have an edge," he added.
That was why Oracle, unlike the Kiwis, repeatedly took to the water with a new "measurement certificate" -- boating parlance indicating it had made slight changes to the configuration, within the rules.
Still, the complete details of Oracle's speed enhancements in the closely guarded America's Cup have yet to come to light, and maybe never will.
Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill lauded the massive day and night efforts of the 100-plus-shore crew, some of whom slept on beds carted into Oracle's base camp in San Francisco's industrial Dogpatch neighborhood.
"We had a lot of great designer engineers," Spithill said Wednesday. "But the guys that really had to dig it in were the shore team."
Spithill, an Australian, added: "In these boats it's a development game. We started this regatta slower than the other team but we ended this regatta faster. That was an incredible team effort. That's really what won us the Cup."
Coutts said it would be a mistake to discount the growing confidence of the crew as it learned to master the nearly 7-ton water-skimming yachts.
"Everyone talks about the technology," the New Zealand native said. "'What changes did you make?' The guys on board changed a lot. For sure there was a use of the technology change where we manipulated the forces or manipulated the balance of those forces, but the guys on board the boat changed their technique, and so there's that fantastic human element to this that really won the day in the end, which is great."
Coutts, 51, sounded slightly chagrined that Oracle hadn't solved its technical issues earlier.
"I had serious doubts when we were 8-1 down, I gotta tell you," he said. "At that stage I was thinking let's just get a couple of wins on the board to make this less embarrassing."
But he said the heat of battle often brings out the best in everyone.
"Sometimes you need competition to kick you in the butt, so to speak," he said.