SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — The lightest wind of the America’s Cup led to one crazy afternoon on foggy San Francisco Bay.
When the 72-foot catamarans came back to shore Friday, Jimmy Spithill and his Oracle Team USA teammates were smiling and slapping each other on the back after keeping the America’s Cup in America for yet another day.
Dean Barker and his mates on Emirates Team New Zealand could only shake their heads at how close they’d come to wresting the oldest trophy in international sports from the American powerhouse owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison.
The always-focused Kiwis could be forgiven if they’d let their thoughts sneak ahead to drinking champagne out of the Auld Mug. Or if someone at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland was rearranging the trophy room for the addition of the big silver pitcher.
The New Zealanders led by about a mile at one point in Race 13.
And didn’t win.
The first attempt to sail Race 13 was abandoned because it wasn’t completed in 40 minutes, the result of organizers trying to fit two races a day into a two-hour TV window.
“It would have been nice to have another 10 minutes,” Barker said with a frustrated smile.
An hour later, after the wind had increased, Spithill and the Oracle boys stayed alive for the second straight day, overtaking the Kiwis on the downwind second leg and pulling away to win the re-sail of Race 13 by 1 minute, 24 seconds.
Team New Zealand leads 8-3. It reached match point on Wednesday before losing Thursday’s only race.
Oracle has won five races but was penalized two points by an international jury in the biggest cheating scandal in the Cup’s 162-year history, so it needs six more wins to complete a miracle comeback. Oracle has won four of the last six races after losing six of the first seven.
“We believe we can win,” said Spithill, a 34-year-old Australian who lives in San Diego with his American wife and their two young boys. “It’s as simple as that. I mean, we’ve worked so hard this whole campaign. From the start of this regatta we were off the pace, and we were honest about it and we were critical about it, inside our own team. But where we are now, we truly believe we’ve got the boat to do it, that we’ve got the tools to do it. I think the guys are doing a fantastic job on board.
“That’s all there is to it. To be honest, if you look at the people involved in this team, the fact that we are at match point, it’s almost like we get the best out of our people when they’re under that sort of pressure.”
Races 14 and, if necessary, 15, are scheduled for Saturday.
Earlier, organizers had to abandon or postpone a race for the sixth time since Saturday. The previous five were because of wind over the safety limit, including one in which the Kiwis were ahead. The wind limit was imposed after British sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed when Artemis Racing’s catamaran capsized during a training run May 9.
Team New Zealand was slogging along on the upwind fourth leg when the clock hit 40 minutes.
It was a bizarre scene as the high-performance catamarans limped between the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island in only 9 knots of wind.
Previously, the cats had hit speeds of 50 mph while skimming across the tops of the waves on hydrofoils, with their hulls completely out of the water.
“Today was a very unusual day on San Francisco Bay and I think it’s the first time we sailed out there all day when it was that light all day,” Barker said. “It’s frustrating to be on the wrong side of it but we knew the time limit existed.”
Oracle tactician Ben Ainslie has been in tough spots before, needing big rallies to win two of his four Olympic gold medals for Britain. He said the Oracle sailors felt both happy and lucky.
“We also felt that the Kiwi guys … I think we’d all been in that situation where you’ve got a hand on the trophy and you have to come back and do it all again,” Ainslie said. “It’s a tough situation to be in. We certainly felt fortunate. But as Jimmy says, we’ve had a bit of a rough time so far. We’ll ride our luck with that one and keep fighting.”
The Kiwis might have beaten the time limit if not for a move by Spithill.
Barker went too deep in the starting box, allowing Spithill to take the favored leeward position off the start line. Normally it’s a sprint across the wind on the reaching first leg as the big cats pop onto their foils. But during the crawl to the first mark, Spithill pushed the Kiwis off course as far as he could before rounding the buoy.
But the Kiwis caught a favorable puff early on the downwind second leg and sailed into the lead.
The wind built past 11 knots for the restart and both boats foiled into the starting box.
With the big cats a mere 10 feet apart, Barker fended off Spithill’s attempt to get the inside position and led at the start and around the first mark.
With both boats foiling going downwind, Oracle was able to grab the lead.
As the boats converged, New Zealand crossed just ahead on port gybe but Oracle, on favored starboard, had to dip out of the way and protested. New Zealand was penalized, but it was moot because Oracle had sailed into the lead.
The Kiwis made another mistake at the bottom gate mark. The American boat gybed on top of them and headed for the right buoy. Instead of following Oracle, the Kiwis gybed toward the other buoy and slowed considerably. That allowed Oracle to open a 20-second lead.
Barker, 41, the hard-luck loser in the 2003 America’s Cup, said the Kiwis didn’t sail as well as they could in the re-sail of Race 13, “but we’ve got a lot of confidence we can go out there and race well tomorrow.”
Asked if the Kiwis need luck, tactician Ray Davies cracked: “Luck’s a great thing. Luck beats skill every time.
“Obviously the odds are firmly in our favor at the moment,” Davies said. “We’ve just got to go out and execute a day like we did in that first race to get one and a half kilometers ahead, which was pretty good. We’ve just got to go out with the same sort of intent tomorrow.”
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