SAN FRANCISCO -- After every race when Oracle Team USA Skipper Jimmy Spithill faced reporters with New Zealand rival Dean Barker sitting beside him, he boasted on and on about the big changes the night crew was making on the boat to help it go faster. They even set up cots for catnaps.
The truth? It was mostly bluster.
"He was spooking him a bit, with all these changes," Oracle's General Manager Grant Simmer said Thursday, the day after Oracle Team USA pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history against New Zealand to retain the America's Cup. "They were much more subtle."
America's Cup history is filled with stories of "secret weapons" onboard that are only revealed later, the most famous being Australia's "winged keel" in 1983 that the team kept shrouded.
But Simmer insists the changes to the 72-foot, high-tech catamaran, with one exception, were mostly small.
To make the boat go faster in heavier wind, the team shortened the central spine of the boat, including the bowsprit, Simmer said. To make it go faster against the wind -- the Achilles heel of the race course for the American team -- the shore crew made a series of modifications to the controls of the giant fixed wing sail that enabled more curvature at the bottom and more twist at the top.
But the biggest change, he said, came from the crew: "We started sailing the boat differently."
And that, Simmer said, came out of desperation.
The low point, he said, came during Race 5. Oracle was already down by three races and despite one win, was still minus-one on the scoreboard because of a two-race penalty that forced the USA team to win two extra races to claim the Cup. Oracle had started strong and was leading but fell apart as it rounded the leeward mark and tanked on the upwind leg. The team was so flustered, Spithill used its one "postponement card" to pull out of the next race and, as he put it, "regroup."
"We're not going to go back and massage each other's egos, I can guarantee you that," he told reporters after the race. "It's obvious we need to make some changes."
The first change was taking tactician John Kostecki off the boat and replacing him with British gold medalist Ben Ainslie. The next, Simmer said, was removing the bowsprit to reduce drag and then, over time, fine-tuning the wing trim controls.
"We went up the very next day and lost both races, that wasn't too good either," Simmer said, "but we were a little more confident with our speed."
After the modifications, the Oracle boat was sailing more than a knot faster upwind.
Coming into the regatta, many America's Cup observers figured the Oracle boat backed by billionaire Larry Ellison would be more refined and faster than the Kiwi boat. But because of problems that delayed the team's training program, the Oracle crew would need more time to learn how to sail it.
It was obvious early on that the Oracle sailors were sloppy, particularly during tacks when the boat slowed dramatically through the turning maneuvers.
"If you go back and watch the tacking, it's like watching kids play soccer compared to real soccer. It's everyone chasing the ball," said Peter Rusch, sports information director for the America's Cup. "I think that made as much or more difference than anything else."
Oracle finally won another race and worked its way out of negative territory but was still down on the scoreboard 6-0.
That's when the comeback began.
"Even we were surprised how the subtle changes were so significant in the performance of the boat," Simmer said. "But we changed the way the guys actually sailed the boat. It took us three or four days to do that properly."
Those were critical days as the Oracle team found itself behind 8-1, and the most spectacular comeback in sports began. Spithill and his crew began trimming the wing sail differently and instead of sailing "higher and slower" to get to the windward mark, the team sailed "lower and faster."
With sailing coach Philippe Prestie working with the team, they were also able to fly upwind on its hydrofoils much better than in the early races.
"New Zealand didn't have an answer to that," Simmer said. "They didn't have that mode."
Other, less tangible, factors played a role as well.
Not only was Spithill dogged in his confidence that the team could come back, but Kinley Fowler, one of their sail trimmers who had injured his back and couldn't race, entertained the crew each morning with his own Australian brand of pep talk. At one point, he played "Indian hippie music," Simmer said, that a fan had sent to try to motivate the team.
"Kinley would say, 'You have to listen to this for six minutes to get in the right mood,'" Simmer said, "stupid stuff like that."
Along with lots of laughs at difficult moments, he said, luck played a role as well. If time hadn't run out on the race course when the wind was barely blowing and New Zealand was a mile ahead, the comeback never would have happened.
"The Kiwis are fierce competitors and I know they're taking it pretty hard," Simmer said. "We were able to keep learning. In the end, that was the deciding factor."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.