Oracle Team USA’s bid to turn the tide in its floundering America’s Cup campaign by bringing sailing superstar Ben Ainslie on board failed on Thursday, when Emirates Team New Zealand crushed the defenders in two do-or-die races.
Emirates now have scored six of the nine victories they need to bring home the trophy the yachting world refers to as the Auld Mug.
Oracle, slapped with a jury-imposed two-race penalty, have won only one race and still need to win another 10 to keep the 162-year-old trophy.
Government-backed New Zealand finished 66 seconds ahead of software billionaire Larry Ellison’s Oracle in their high-speed catamaran in the second race of the day and 47 seconds ahead in the first heat.
“We cannot give up,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said at a post-race press conference. “We’ll keep fighting all the way to the end. I’m still convinced we can win races.”
In Thursday’s first race, the sixth of the series, Oracle won the start, but lost the lead upwind on the third leg. In the second match, New Zealand won the start and kept the lead throughout.
Oracle have looked slow against New Zealand on the upwind legs, where they have forfeited leading positions in five races. New Zealand in Thursday’s first race forced Oracle into having to perform a dozen of the taxing maneuvers as the huge catamarans zigzagged into a light 12-knot breeze to the windward mark.
Spithill said the upwind speed differential caught his team off guard.
“I think it is a shock that they’ve got the edge upwind, [but] there’s a lot of racing to go. It’s a long way from over in my mind,” Spithill said.
New Zealand used an aggressive match racing “dial-down” tactic in race six to pass Oracle. The challenger had the right of way as it was about to cross tacks with its foe, and by aiming straight at Oracle forced them to duck and lose distance.
Ainslie, the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, was knighted for his achievements on the water. He took over as tactician aboard the AC72 from American John Kostecki.
The 36-year-old Briton was the skipper of Oracle’s second yacht during training matches and remains a fearful competitor for New Zealand.
“It feels nice to have won six races, but it’s only two-thirds of the way toward winning the America’s Cup,” New Zealand skipper Dean Barker told reporters. “We know it’s far from over.”
Earlier this week, a tactical blunder by Kostecki cost Oracle a lead, allowed New Zealand to cruise into a commanding fourth victory and prompting the US team to call for an unusual time-out.
Oracle started the regatta two points behind because of an unprecedented jury-imposed punishment for illegally modifying the team’s smaller, prototype boats sailed in warmup races.
Though Oracle flies the US flag, substituting Ainslie for Kostecki leaves only one US sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby. All but two of the Emirates sailors hail from New Zealand.
The international jury that punished Oracle in the biggest cheating scandal in America’s Cup history also expelled Kostecki’s brother-in-law, first-choice Oracle wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder, for making illegal boat alterations.
Ellison won the world’s oldest sporting trophy in Valencia, Spain, in 2010 and with it the right to choose his home San Francisco Bay waters as the venue, and the fragile and hard-to-handle twin-hulled yachts with 13-story rigid wing sails as the vessels.
Some sailors have criticized the Oracle chief executive’s decisions, particularly after British Olympic Games gold medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed when the AC72 of Sweden’s Artemis Racing capsized during a practice exercise in May.