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Oracle beats New Zealand to keep America's Cup

Thursday - 9/26/2013, 6:54pm  ET

The crew on Oracle Team USA celebrates after winning the 19th race against Emirates Team New Zealand to win the America's Cup sailing event, as fans wave in the foreground Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

BERNIE WILSON
AP Sports Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The fastest boat always wins the America's Cup, and this one went to a big black cat that almost used up its last life too soon.

With one last spectacular push in a winner-take-all finale Wednesday, the United States managed to hang onto the Auld Mug in closing out the longest, fastest and, by far, wildest America's Cup ever with one of the greatest comebacks in sports.

"I'm going to rank it No. 1. We never gave up," skipper Jimmy Spithill said.

Spithill steered Oracle's space-age, 72-foot catamaran to its eighth straight victory, speeding past Dean Barker and Team New Zealand sailing upwind in Race 19 on a San Francisco Bay course bordered by the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Embarcadero.

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 was docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas and had to win 11 races to keep the trophy.

For eight races, they sailed with no margin for error in a new class of boats that had a learning curve that was almost straight up.

Even Ellison was motivated by Spithill's resolve after the Kiwis reached match point at 8-1 one week earlier.

The billionaire said he didn't need to tell his team anything.

"I just listened to Jimmy Spithill. He said, 'You know what 8-1 is? 8-1 is motivating,' " Ellison said.

"There's nothing like going all in," Spithill said. "I'm so proud of the boys. ... They didn't flinch."

It could have been over shortly after the start Wednesday 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.

"We just knew it was going to be a tough race," Spithill said. "I just have so much confidence in the boys on board and the boat. When you sail these boats, you're on the edge. You really red-line them the whole way. They keep you on your toes. It's a very demanding boat but it's very rewarding at the same time."

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 American 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 build its lead, 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." Ainslie replaced John Kostecki after Oracle lost four of the first five races.

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 going faster and faster.

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 going upwind. While the upwind leg was known earlier for the "Kiwi stretch," where Team New Zealand sailed ahead, Oracle found another gear going windward in the final eight races.

"We started this regatta slower than the other team but we ended this regatta faster," Spithill said. "That was an incredible team effort. That's really what won us the Cup."

Ellison praised his entire team for finding the right mode for the boat.

"The guys finally cracked the code, finally figured out what we had to do," the billionaire said.

"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."

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