SAN FRANCISCO -- In the wildest race and most harrowing moment of the 34th America's Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand came within a whisper of capsizing -- its 72-foot catamaran teetering on one pontoon for an agonizing five seconds -- giving Oracle Team USA the lead in Race 8 and a crucial win.
As Kiwi journalist Duncan Johnstone put it, "the whole of New Zealand was leaning with the boat."
Race 9, the second race of the day that started with New Zealand taking the lead, was canceled midway through because of high winds. Races 9 and 10 are scheduled for Sunday. The regatta could end Tuesday in Races 11 and 12 of the best-of-17 series if the Kiwis, who have won six races, win three of four. Defending champion Oracle, which has won two races but started with a two-race penalty, needs nine more victories to retain the cup that it won in 2010.
Kiwi tactician Ray Davies told reporters Saturday afternoon that the Americans were so close on his heels on the upwind leg that he was forced to call for a quick tack, which didn't give the crew enough time to properly execute the maneuver. That meant that while the boat tacked, the wing sail didn't.
The image of one of the twin hulls lifted high in the sky while the towering wing sail nearly hit the water was so dramatic, it is already destined for the America's Cup highlight reels.
"We were about as close as you can possibly get before the thing would have ended up on its side," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker told reporters after the races. "We made one mistake. It cost us the race, but also came very, very close to costing a lot more than that."
Conditions on the bay Saturday were already dangerous. Not only was the wind strong, close to 23 mph, but an ebb tide was pulling the water out of the bay, causing rough waves. Similar conditions a year ago caused Oracle to capsize during a training exercise, nearly destroying its boat as it was dragged under the Golden Gate Bridge.
During Saturday's race, the Kiwi catamaran finally came crashing down, hard but safely, on both hulls. But not before Oracle Team USA had to take quick, evasive measures.
The Americans were just about to duck the Kiwis and might have crashed right into the side of the boat if they had not done a quick "crash tack" to avoid it. "Tack! Tack! Tack!" Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill was heard yelling from on board. The Americans avoided the distressed Kiwi boat and sailed ahead for two more legs to the finish line, winning by 52 seconds.
Although New Zealand had started the race strongly and led by three seconds at the first mark and eight seconds at the second, the Americans finally started to make gains on the cursed third leg, which has caused most of the team's frustrations in previous races.
After two crushing losses Thursday, the Oracle shore crew made a number of modifications to the boat to make it go faster upwind. Spithill wouldn't divulge the changes, but the bowsprit at the front of the boat was obviously shorter, making the boat lighter.
It helped. This time, on the third upwind tack, Oracle Team USA actually crossed ahead of New Zealand. It was on the next beat, when Oracle was getting close again, that the Kiwis called for the rushed tack, the boat started to tip and the crew held on, as Davies said, "for dear life."
Spithill said Saturday's win gives the team a confidence boost.
"Everybody's motivated and hungry," Spithill said. "We don't want to let these guys take the cup. We don't. We're obsessed with keeping it here."
Emirates Team New Zealand 6 points,
Oracle Team USA 0 points
Best-of-17 series or first team to 9 points
Sunday: Races 9 and 10, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. 12:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and 1 p.m. on COZI-TV
Tuesday: Races 11 and 12*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. on KNTV
Wednesday: Races 13* and 14*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. on KNTV
Thursday: Races 15* and 16*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. 1 p.m. on KNTV
Sept. 21: Race 17*, 1:15 p.m. 12:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
* -- if necessary
NOTE: Because of penalties, Oracle Team USA began the America's Cup with minus-2 points, meaning it would need to win 11 races to retain the America's Cup. New Zealand needs to win nine. If necessary, Races 18 and 19 will be added to the schedule.
COZI-TV can be found on Comcast Channel 186 and over the air on Digital Channel 11.2.