Emirates Team New Zealand knocked Italy's sailors out of America's Cup contention on Sunday by clinching a challenger match race series with a faster AC72 catamaran and will now attempt to wrest the coveted trophy from Oracle Team USA.
New Zealand defeated Luna Rossa Challenge 7-1 in the Louis Vuitton Cup, the regatta that determines which boat and crew will sail against the previous winner of the 162-year old trophy. The Kiwis beat Luna Rossa in the previous Louis Vuitton Cup in 2007.
With their 72-foot twin-hulled yacht up on its foils, the Kiwis sailed across the finish line at 46 miles an hour. Italy finished three minutes and 20 seconds behind on the fog-enshrouded San Francisco Bay as fans cheered and waved flags for the victors.
New Zealand looked so polished in the preliminary racing against Italy in July that they became the hands-down favorite. Minutes before the race on Sunday, skipper Dean Barker confidently said "Now we get to get a nice piece of silver wear."
The America's Cup finals are scheduled to begin September 7. In the 17-race series, government-sponsored New Zealand will need to win 9 against the Oracle team bankrolled by software billionaire Larry Ellison.
"We came here to try to win the America' Cup, and this is all part of the preparation," New Zealand's Barker said after the race, pausing from drinking champagne from the bottle.
New Zealand's team was the only 2013 America's Cup competitor with a crew almost exclusively from its home country.
Other teams also had New Zealand sailors as crew.
If New Zealand wins the Cup, team managing director Grant Dalton has said he will use the defender's right to set rules to force teams in the next America's Cup to use sailors from their home countries.
A tradition of using crews from a team's home country has been in place for much of the America's Cup history but not since 2003. A nationality rule would swing the odds considerably in the Kiwis' favor.
The Cup looms large in New Zealand, where much of the country lives near the coast, and sailing is a popular pastime. One of New Zealand's most heralded sailors, Russell Coutts, runs the American team as its chief executive officer.
Ellison won the cup in Valencia, Spain, in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules and choose the location for this year's regatta.
High costs scared off challenges and a May training accident, which killed Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson of Sweden's Artemis Racing, threw the competition into chaos.