SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP/BCN) – It was a day for the sailing history books on Wednesday as Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup with one of the greatest sports comebacks ever.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill steered Oracle’s space-age, 72-foot catamaran to its eighth straight victory, speeding past fellow skipper 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 United States.
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Oracle had trailed by a margin of 8-1 last week, but its surprise winning streak had tied up the regatta 8-8 and forced Wednesday’s winner-take-all face-off. Either team needed nine points to win the cup.
Owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, the Oracle team started the finals with a two-point deficit after being penalized for illegal boat modifications during earlier exhibition races and had to win 11 races to keep the Auld Mug, making its comeback all the more stunning.
All but defeated a week ago, the 34-year-old Australian Spithill and his international crew twice rallied from seven-point deficits to win 9-8 Wednesday. Spithill had refused to let his team fold after the penalties were announced four days before racing started and led an almost unimaginable rally.
“It really is about the team, man,” Spithill said at the awards ceremony and press conference following the race. “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.”
After almost dunking its chances when it buried its bows in a wave shortly after Wednesday’s start, Oracle’s hulking black catamaran – with a giant No. 17 on each hull – showed its incredible speed when it reeled in the Kiwis while zigzagging toward the Golden Gate Bridge on the windward third leg.
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 (Rome Kirby from Rhode Island) – had the lead.
As Oracle worked to keep 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.”
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 at 35 mph, 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. (Watch video below showing final leg of race.)
There were hugs and handshakes after Spithill steered the fast cat across the finish line off America’s Cup Park on Piers 27-29. Ellison hopped on board and the celebrating crew – consisting of four Australians, two Kiwis, and one sailor each from the United States, Britain, Italy, Holland and Antigua – sprayed him with champagne.
Cheers and chants of “USA” rang out among the crowd packed into the America’s Cup Park along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Revelers drank champagne from plastic flutes and waved American flags as Kool & the Gang’s song “Celebration” blasted from nearby speakers.
“You couldn’t have written a better Hollywood script,” said an elated Ron Bell, a gymnastics coach from Martinez, who was among the crowd dressed head-to-toe in red, white and blue. “It was the most fantastic race of all.”
How big a win was this?
In sailing terms, it was the equivalent of the Boston Red Sox sweeping the final four games of the 2004 ALCS over the New York Yankees, the only 3-0 comeback in major league history. It’s also comparable to the Philadelphia Flyers overcoming a 0-3 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the 2010 NHL playoffs.
There have been only two other neck-and-neck races in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup, in 1920 and 1983, according to race officials.
As stirring of a comeback as it was for Spithill and his mates, it was a staggering loss for Team New Zealand. Barker, 41, was looking for redemption after losing the America’s Cup to Alinghi of Switzerland in 2003 and then steering the losing boat in 2007, also against Alinghi.
“For me, my job is to support the guys because they’re pretty smashed,” said Grant Dalton, the managing director of Team New Zealand who also is one of the grinders on the boat. “They’re feeling it pretty bad. … The country is really devastated.”
Team New Zealand was funded in part by its government and its future is uncertain.
Barker was gracious in defeat, as were the Kiwi fans who traveled from New Zealand to the Bay Area to watch the race.
“To Oracle, amazing. We thought a couple of weeks ago that it was sort of in our favor, and the way they improved and turned things around is just incredible. It was unbelievable,” Barker said.
Auckland resident Rob Mataiti pondered the loss with a large New Zealand flag draped over his shoulders in America’s Cup Park.
“It would have been good if (New Zealand) had won. I thought they had it,” he said. “I feel humbled amongst the Americans.”
This was the first time the America’s Cup was raced inshore and San Francisco Bay provided a breathtaking racecourse that was bordered by the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Embarcadero.
The catamarans were the vision of Ellison and his sailing team CEO, Russell Coutts, who is now a five-time America’s Cup winner. Powered by a 131-foot wing sail, the cats have hit 50 mph, faster than the speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge.
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