Team New Zealand beat Oracle Team USA in first two America's Cup races
Kiwis win first two races in America's Cup as Oracle Team USA crewman falls overboard
Agencies in San Francisco
Emirates Team New Zealand outsailed billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA in the first day of the America's Cup finals with near collisions and a man overboard as the hightechnology catamarans crisscrossed San Francisco Bay in the first close-fought duels since the regatta began two months ago.
Manoeuvring his 72-foot carbon-fibre yacht at speeds close to 45 miles per hour, Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker aggressively cut off the defending champions' boat several times to win the first two races in the best-of-17 final series.
"I am really proud of the way the guys sailed. The boat was spot on," Barker said. "It's going to be a battle right the way to the end."
Already hobbled by a cheating penalty, the results make it even harder for Oracle to defend the cup they won in Spain, in 2010.
The final series of matches is the culmination of a regatta plagued by controversies including cheating by Oracle, dangerous catamarans, a fatal accident and accusations of mismanagement.
Fans along the shore at an America's Cup park on San Francisco Bay cheered the Kiwis as their AC72 catamaran crossed the finish line with a lead of nearly a minute in the day's second race.
Seconds before the first race, an Oracle crewman fell overboard, leaving his team to compete with only 10 sailors. New Zealand began that match with a small lead and were passed by Oracle for a short time before regaining the lead and winning by 36 seconds.
"Hopefully we can take some races and not have passes and just win," Oracle tactician John Kostecki said when asked if the boats were evenly matched.
In pre-start manoeuvring for the second race, the two boats appeared to touch each other as Oracle went for a controlling position just downwind of the Kiwis. Even a light collision could have cost New Zealand a penalty, but none was called.
"It really was a touch-and-go moment in the race," New Zealand tactician Ray Davies said after the second race. "It was pretty much the race right there in that moment."
The contest was the first suspenseful racing in the regatta after two months of relatively tame qualifying matches easily dominated by the formidable Kiwis.
The latest setback for the America's Cup came last Tuesday, when an international jury docked Oracle two points - the equivalent of two races - and kicked three team members out of the event for adding illegal weight to boats used in a previous preparatory competition.
The penalties, unprecedented in the history of the 162-year-old event, are a big boost for New Zealand, who demolished other would-be challengers in qualifying races in July and August.
Due to the penalty, Oracle need to win 11 races to retain the cup, while New Zealand only need to win a total of nine. With the first two victories, New Zealand now need seven more.
The opening races of the 34th America's Cup were seen as a demonstration of how the high-speed AC72 catamarans can make the event an exciting spectator sport with appeal beyond sailing lovers.
"We think this is the way forward," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said of racing the high-performance, high-cost catamarans.
"It feels like we are up there with the other sports now."
While New Zealand and Oracle took different design approaches, the boats seemed evenly matched and it will likely be small mistakes that decide outcomes of close races, according to Barker.
"Starting will be very fierce, because these two guys are at the top of their game at the wheel of a US$10 million carbon missile," New Zealand wing man Glenn Ashby quipped, referring to Barker and Spithill.
When asked whether high-speed near-misses in races prompted worries of crashes, Ashby shrugged off the notion with a grin.
"No, these guys are definitely in control," he responded. "It is like driving a motorbike or a car; you don't realise you've crashed until you've crashed," he continued. "It is fun."
Reuters, Agence France-Presse