SAN FRANCISCO -- Emirates Team New Zealand is poised to win the America's Cup on Thursday, needing just one more victory to take the oldest sports trophy back to Auckland. But Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA, which needs eight more victories to retain the cup, isn't giving up.
"We've got one hell of a battle on our hands here, but stranger things have happened in sports," Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill said. "This team will fight all the way to the end. We won't give up."
It could have all been over on Wednesday, but heavy winds forced the cancellation of the second race of the day, Race 12, just 33 seconds before the scheduled start when it looked like New Zealand had an edge heading toward the starting line.
"Bugger!" at least one Kiwi fan yelled out when the race was canceled.
Race 12 is scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Thursday. Race 13, if needed, is planned for 2:15 p.m.
On Wednesday, thousands of fans lined the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay, watching some of the best racing the America's Cup has ever seen. The 72-foot catamarans powered by towering wing sails race at speeds three and four times those seen with monohulls that have traditionally raced in the America's Cup. Although the score doesn't show it -- the Kiwis have won eight races and the Americans three -- the racing has been very competitive, with more lead changes in one race than the America's Cup had ever seen. Because of a penalty lodged before the regatta began, Oracle was docked two races, so the scoreboard reads 8-1. While the Kiwis need just one victory to win the America's Cup, the Americans need eight to hold onto the trophy they won in 2010.
In the aborted Race 12, both teams crossed the starting line Wednesday afternoon before the skippers realized the race had been officially canceled. In a news conference afterward, Oracle tactician Ben Ainslie, who has won five Olympic medals for Britain, said he heard the regatta director on the radio canceling the race but ignored it at first.
"I thought I'd wait to hear it a few more times," Ainslie said, "and not lose the America's Cup by the wrong radio call."
Wind limits were imposed after Sweden's Artemis Racing team capsized last spring during a practice session, killing one of its crewmen when he was trapped underneath the wreckage. A strong ebb tide pulling water out of the bay caused rough, choppy conditions, making the danger factor even higher.
Oracle Team USA lost Wednesday's first race by 15 seconds. New Zealand had a better start and led at the first mark by three seconds and by eight at the second mark. The teams battled upwind with a tacking duel, and Oracle was beginning to close the gap when the Kiwis forced the Americans into an extra tack, slowing the American team and keeping the Kiwis ahead at Mark 3.
New Zealand widened the gap on the last downwind leg to 300 meters until Oracle, finding good wind along the boundary line, narrowed the lead to 70 meters. As the teams approached the fourth mark, it looked as if Oracle had a chance to take the lead.
"Ben called a pretty nice lay-line right on the bottom and kept it really close," Spithill told reporters later. "One little mistake from those guys, and we would have been able to pass them."
But New Zealand didn't make a mistake and rounded 18 seconds ahead of Oracle, then sped to the finish line, winning by 15 seconds.
Ainslie said his crew members will give it their all Thursday.
"You just need to keep believing," he said. "We'll go out and get the guys fired up and race as hard as we can."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.
Emirates Team New Zealand 8 points,
Oracle Team USA 1 point
Best-of-17 series or first team to 9 points
Thursday: Races 12 and 13*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. 1 p.m. on KNTV, 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.
Inside: Full schedule, PAGE 5