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America’s Cup: Improbable comeback sets up winner-take-all finale

AC - R17

FANS cheer Tuesday's American victory at America's Cup Park in San Francisco. Photo by ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

By
From page A8 | September 25, 2013 |

SAN FRANCISCO — One of the greatest comebacks in sport occurred on San Francisco Bay, Tuesday, when Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) came back from an 8-1 deficit to win seven straight races and tie Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) in the 34th America’s Cup (AC34).

It’s unexpected for a sailboat to win so many races in a row, especially when its competition is so evenly matched. Few of those knowledgeable about the sport of sailing thought it possible for OTUSA to come back from so great a deficit.

After the racing ended on Tuesday, New Zealand wing trimmer Glenn Ashby quipped that all the racing leading up to this moment was just “training. The regatta starts tomorrow.”

AC34 has now set a record as the longest America’s Cup. It is also proving to be the most thrilling. People who’ve never watched sailing have been coming out to watch the races. Sacramentans Raz Ionita, 36, his wife Andra, 28, and her twin sister Andrea, were there to watch OTUSA even the score. They had never watched a sailboat race until two weeks ago and have attended every America’s Cup race, since. Raz said, “We have to keep it (the cup) at home.”

A couple of weeks ago, you had to search to find spectators holding American flags at America’s Cup Park (Piers 27 and 29). Most of the fans were Kiwis, wearing black shirts and waving their blue national flag. Now, Americans are streaming onto the pier with stars and stripes flying. As OTUSA knotched its ninth win, a steady flow of San Franciscans came down to watch huge monitors and cheer on the American boat. American skipper Jimmy Spithill said the turnout has been noticed, “The whole of San Francisco is coming down to support us, the whole of the nation is watching.”

What they saw on Tuesday was a dominant performance by OTUSA. In the first of two must-win races, Spithill maneuvered USA 17 below New Zealand’s Aotearoa, gaining favored position and causing NZ skipper Dean Barker to foul the American boat twice. Following the race, Barker admitted he’d botched it saying, “I made a really bad job of the start that took us out of the race.”

In the second race, the Kiwis won the start and led through the reaching mark to leeward mark two, but then leading upwind, tacked ahead of the overtaking American boat, but not close enough to it to foul its air. From that point on, OTUSA sailed away from the Kiwis with such epic speed that it led by over 1,000 meters before turning for home and its tenth win of the regatta.

The few Kiwi fans that remain at America’s Cup Park (the regatta has lasted longer than their hotel or flight reservations allowed) are disheartened. Dan Cardiff, 31, of Nelson, NZ said, “We need to change our boat. Oracle is way faster. Even when we won the start, we couldn’t keep the pressure on. The Americans are so bloody fast.”

As for the American fans, Jay Conners, 49, of Richmond summarized the feeling, “The longer it goes, the better it gets.”

Asked if he still thinks OTUSA is the underdog, Spithill replied, “Yeah, I think we are. I’m just going to keep running with that” despite having won seven straight. Spithill sees OTUSA as still coming back from a capsize that destroyed their first boat during training, the loss of key crewmen and a two-point deficit incurred as a result of penalties judged against OTUSA, and performance problems experienced early in the America’s Cup. As for what keeps the US team going, he said, “You can either get wobbly at the knees or stare down the barrel of the gun.”

In contrast, New Zealand media are comparing the string of recent losses by ETNZ, after dominating early races, as similar to the collapse of the dominant All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team) in championship matches.

Barker responds, “We got beaten today and that’s tough, but we know we can win this. We have all the same gears; it’s being able to check into those gears at the right time.”

While both skippers vow to fight to the end, the difference is that Barker seems amazed they aren’t winning, while Spithill is driven to “Finish it off. The guys want it. You can sense it all around.”

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