Skipper Jimmy Spithill accelerated his catamaran off the starting line and steered defending champions Oracle Team USA to their fifth straight win against Emirates Team New Zealand on Monday to stay alive in the America’s Cup.
The 34-year-old Spithill and his brain trust of Olympic gold medalists — British tactician Ben Ainslie and Australian strategist Tom Slingsby — kept the US-backed boat ahead the whole way around the five-leg course on San Francisco Bay for a 33-second victory.
Oracle’s remarkable comeback from what seemed like certain defeat has closed the Kiwis’ lead to 8-6 and has all of New Zealand on edge.
Emirates Team New Zealand have been on match point since Wednesday last week, only to watch Spithill and Oracle’s improved catamaran sail ahead in a determined attempt to keep the oldest trophy in international sports in the US.
Oracle Team USA, owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison, have won eight races, but they were docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas called the America’s Cup World Series, so they need three more wins to keep the Auld Mug.
The regatta would be tied if Oracle had not been handed the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup. Besides being docked two points, Oracle wing sail trimmer Dirk de Ridder was disqualified from the regatta and replaced by 24-year-old Kyle Langford four days before the match started.
Rebounding from the penalties is “not frustrating; it’s actually motivating, to be honest,” Spithill said. “We feel like we’ve made great progress with the performance of the boat. I think that was evident today in lighter air. We can win this Cup. They can take as many races as they want, but for us, we know we can win this Cup if we win the next few races.”
Because race 16 was delayed by half an hour due to light wind, race 17 was postponed until yesterday. That gives New Zealand another day to ponder what they need to do to avoid a collapse.
New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said the Kiwis remain positive, but know they have to improve.
“We still wouldn’t trade positions,” Barker said. “We still would rather be on match point than having to win three more. It is definitely a battle. There’s no question the Oracle guys have stepped it up a lot and we need to be able to respond.”
Kiwi fans gathered nervously around televisions at yacht clubs, bars and schools to watch Monday’s race, with optimism fading fast. At Shed 10, an events space on Auckland’s waterfront where hundreds have gathered daily to watch the racing, a priest led prayers for a New Zealand win.
The state betting agency TAB said it has begun receiving bets on Oracle in the past two days and has slashed the odds on a US victory from 7-1 a week ago to 2-1, while the odds for New Zealand are now 7-4.
Oracle were actually the favorites for race 17, with 3-2 odds compared to 5-2 odds for the Kiwis.
In Monday’s race, Barker had New Zealand in the favored leeward position crossing the starting line, before Spithill got Oracle onto its hydrofoils, with both hulls out of the water, and sped into the lead sailing across the wind in front of the Golden Gate Bridge to the first mark.
Oracle increased their lead at each turning mark on the five-leg course between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Embarcadero.
Oracle have won seven of the past nine races, and nine of 11 since Spithill replaced US tactician John Kostecki with Ainslie, who won four straight Olympic gold medals to go with his silver medal in 1996. Ainslie clearly has good communication with Slingsby, who won a gold at the London Olympics.
This year’s America’s Cup stretched into its 17th day, making it the longest in history. The 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, lasted 16 days and ended with Barker and the hard-luck Kiwis losing the silver to Alinghi of Switzerland.