Billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA won the first of two scheduled America's Cup races on Saturday, chipping away at Emirates Team New Zealand's extensive lead after the Kiwis nearly capsized their yacht.
New Zealand began the eighth match in the Cup finals with a lead over Oracle, but in a maneuver during an upward leg skipper Dean Barker temporarily lost control when the boat's 135-foot-tall wing sail got stuck. The AC72 catamaran teetered on one hull for several seconds before dropping back in the water.
That gave Oracle a chance to get out in front and it went on to win the race by 52 seconds, just its second victory in the 17-match series in San Francisco Bay.
Aggressive tactics and solidly executed maneuvers have helped the Kiwis dominate racing since the final series of races for the 162-year old trophy began last week. Barring a catastrophic misstep by New Zealand, which its near-capsize easily could have become, experts say Oracle has little chance of catching up.
The Kiwis, backed by the New Zealand government, have scored six victories against Oracle and need only three more to win.
One more race is scheduled for Saturday with another two on tap for Sunday. If Oracle does not turn things around, the Cup could be headed to New Zealand by the end of Sunday.
Ellison's Oracle, slapped with a jury-imposed two-race penalty, has won only two race and still needs to win another nine to keep the Cup, which the yachting world refers to as the Auld Mug.
Since the teams began races a week ago, Oracle has suffered against New Zealand on upwind legs, where it has repeatedly forfeited early leads. The Kiwis have maneuvered Oracle into disadvantaged positions near race-course boundaries and forced Skipper Jimmy Spithill to perform extra maneuvers as the huge catamarans zigzagged across the bay.
Oracle on Thursday replaced tactician John Kostecki with British sailing superstar Ben Ainslie, but that change failed to turn the tide of the team's floundering Cup defense.
"It doesn't mean it can't be turned around, but it would take some sort of brilliant swordsmanship on the part of Oracle, some flash of fire from the heavens," said Kimball Livingston, a competitive sailor and writer at blueplanettimes.com.
Oracle started the regatta two points behind because of an unprecedented jury-imposed punishment for illegally modifying the team's smaller, prototype boats sailed in warm-up races.
Though Oracle flies the American flag, substituting Ainslie for Kostecki left only one U.S. sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby. All but two of the Kiwi sailors hail from New Zealand.
The international jury that punished Oracle in the biggest cheating scandal in Cup history also expelled Kostecki's brother-in-law, first-choice Oracle wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder for making illegal boat alterations.
When Ellison's team won the America's Cup in 2010, it gained the right to set the rules and chose windy San Francisco Bay for this year's competition.
Oracle also came up with the AC72 yachts, which can hydrofoil across the waves at 50 miles per hour. In May it became tragically clear how dangerous the twin-hulled yachts were, when a sailor was killed in the capsize of the AC72 sailed by Artemis Racing.
The Kiwis first won the America's Cup in 1995 and successfully defended it in 2000 before losing the trophy three years later to Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi in a disastrous campaign that left the team in shambles.