x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Oracle beat Emirates Team New Zealand again to stay alive in America’s Cup

But Kiwis remain on match point and will not trade places with American rivals who still need to win three races to lift Auld Mug.

Had Oracle Team USA not been penalised for cheating, they would have been level on points with Emirates Team New Zealand. Noah Berger
Had Oracle Team USA not been penalised for cheating, they would have been level on points with Emirates Team New Zealand. Noah Berger

SAN FRANCISCO // Jimmy Spithill, the skipper, accelerated his 72-foot catamaran off the starting line and steered Oracle Team USA, the defending champions, to their fifth straight win against Emirates Team New Zealand on Monday to stay alive in the America’s Cup.

Spithill, 34, and his brain trust of Olympic gold medalists – British tactician Ben Ainslie and Australian strategist Tom Slingsby – kept the American-backed boat ahead the whole way around the five-leg course on San Francisco Bay for a 33-second victory.

Oracle’s remarkable comeback from what seemed like certain defeat has closed the Kiwis’ lead to 8-6 and has all of New Zealand on edge.

Team New Zealand have been on match point since Wednesday, only to watch Spithill and Oracle’s improved 72-foot catamaran sail ahead in a determined attempt to keep the oldest trophy in international sports in America.

Oracle Team USA have won eight races. But they were docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warm-up regattas called the America’s Cup World Series, so they need three more wins to keep the Auld Mug.

The regatta would be tied if Oracle had not been handed the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup. Besides being docked two points, Dirk de Ridder, the Oracle wing sail trimmer, was disqualified from the regatta and replaced by Kyle Langford, 24, four days before the match started.

Rebounding from the penalties is “not frustrating; it’s actually motivating, to be honest,” Spithill said. “We feel like we’ve made great progress with the performance of the boat. I think that was evident today in lighter air.

“We can win this cup. They can take as many races as they want. But for us, we know we can win this cup if we win the next few races.”

Because Race 16 was delayed a half-hour due to light wind, Race 17 was postponed until Tuesday. That gives Team New Zealand another day to ponder what they need to do to avoid a collapse.

Dean Barker, the New Zealand skipper, said the Kiwis remain positive but know they have to improve.

“We still wouldn’t trade positions,” Barker said. “We still would rather be on match point than having to win three more. It is definitely a battle. There’s no question the Oracle guys have stepped it up a lot and we need to be able to respond.”

Kiwi fans gathered nervously around televisions at yacht clubs, bars and schools to watch Monday’s race, with optimism fading fast. At Shed 10, an events space on Auckland’s waterfront where hundreds have gathered daily to watch the racing, a priest led prayers for a New Zealand win.

In Monday’s race, Barker had Team New Zealand in the favoured leeward position crossing the starting line before Spithill got Oracle onto its hydrofoils, with both hulls out of the water, and sped into the lead sailing across the wind in front of the Golden Gate Bridge to the first mark.

Oracle increased their lead at each turning mark on the five-leg course between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Embarcadero.

Oracle have won seven of the last nine races, and nine of 11 since Spithill replaced John Kostecki, the American tactician, with Ainslie, who won four straight Olympic gold medals to go with his silver medal from 1996. Ainslie clearly has good communications with Slingsby, who won a gold medal at the London Olympics.

This America’s Cup stretched into its 17th day, making it the longest in history. The 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, lasted 16 days and ended with Barker and the hard-luck Kiwis losing the silver trophy to Alinghi of Switzerland.

sports@thenational.ae