Skipper Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup on Wednesday with one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
Spithill steered Oracle’s space-age, 72-foot (21.9m) catamaran to its eighth straight victory, speeding past Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand in the winner-take-all race 19 on San Francisco Bay to keep the oldest trophy in international sports in the US.
All but defeated a week ago, the 34-year-old Australian and his international crew twice rallied from seven-point deficits to win 9-8. Owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, Oracle Team USA were docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas and had to win 11 races to keep the trophy.
“It really is about the team, man,” Spithill said. “On your own you’re nothing, but when you’ve got a team like this around you, they can make you look great. They did all of that today and the whole series. I’m so proud of the boys ... They didn’t flinch.”
It could have been over shortly after the start just inside the Golden Gate Bridge.
Oracle’s hulking black catamaran — with a giant No. 17 on each hull — buried its twin bows in a wave approaching the first mark and Barker turned his red-and-black cat around the buoy with a 7 second lead.
The New Zealanders were game despite being stranded on match point for a week. Spithill and crew still had to sail their best to keep from becoming the third US loser in 30 years.
Oracle narrowed Team New Zealand’s lead to 3 seconds turning onto the third leg, the only time the boats sail into the wind.
New Zealand had the lead the first time the boats crossed on opposite tacks. By the time they crossed again, the American boat — with only one American on its 11-man crew — had the lead.
As Oracle worked to stay ahead, tactician Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from Britain, implored his mates by saying: “This is it. This is it. Working your [rears] off.”
It had to be a gut-wrenching moment in New Zealand — coming so close to winning the oldest trophy in international sports a week ago, only to see Oracle suddenly improve its speed.
“We knew we had a fight on our hands,” Barker said. “It’s really frustrating. The gains that they made were just phenomenal. They did just an amazing job of sorting out their boat. It’s a good thing for us they didn’t do it earlier. I am incredibly proud of our team and what we achieved. But we didn’t get that last one we needed to take the cup back to New Zealand. It’s just very hard to swallow.”
Oracle’s shore team had made changes to the black cat every night in its big boatshed on Pier 80 to make its cat a speed freak.
As Spithill rounded the third mark onto the downwind fourth leg, his catamaran sprang onto its hydrofoils, its hulls completely out of the water, and headed for history. A final sprint across the wind on the reaching fifth leg resulted in a 44 second victory.
There were hugs and handshakes on the boat crewed by four Australians, two Kiwis, and one sailor each from the US, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Antigua.
Ellison, who has spent an estimated US$500 million the last 11 years in pursuing, winning and now defending the silver trophy, hopped on board and was sprayed with champagne by the celebrating crew.
“The guys finally cracked the code, finally figured out what we had to do,” the billionaire said.
This was the first time the America’s Cup was raced inshore and San Francisco Bay provided a breathtaking racecourse.
The catamarans were the vision of Ellison and his sailing team CEO, Russell Coutts, who is now a five-time America’s Cup winner.
After Artemis Racing’s Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed in a capsize on May 9, sailors began wearing body armor, knives, an air tank and breathing tube, self-lowering equipment and underwater locator devices.