Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Yachting: San Francisco tests water for Team NZ

The final two days of the America's Cup World Series in San Francisco should provide a good test of whether Team New Zealand's racing programme is back on track.

Undone by poor preparation at the last regatta at the venue, Team New Zealand resolved to do a better job of balancing the demands of their testing and development programme in the AC72 , ensuring they stay race-sharp for the AC45 events.

They've already gone one better in the match-racing championship than they did in August, booking a showdown with Artemis' Nathan Outteridge in the semifinal.

But given it took just two races for the Kiwi team to get there, with organisers forced to pare back the racing programme this week to accommodate Fleet Week celebrations, it is difficult to get a gauge of whether they've truly regained lost ground on their rivals.

Today's semifinal showdown against Artemis Red and a potential final match-up against either Outteridge's stablemate Terry Hutchinson, in Artemis White, or Oracle's Jimmy Spithill will provide a better measure of the progress of Dean Barker and crew.

Oracle and Artemis both run two boats in the World Series regattas. That competitive racing practice they get in-house has been reflected in their results this week, with the two teams featuring prominently in the fleet races. Barker remains slightly off the pace in the fleet races, sitting fifth after four of the seven races.

The Kiwi team could only manage a fifth and sixth placing in yesterday's races, even with US swimming great and 12-time Olympic medallist Natalie Coughlin on board as their "lucky charm".

Team New Zealand tactician Ray Davies said at the beginning of the week it was important that the team use this regatta to get a handle on the challenging conditions. He believed they're getting there.

The combination of strong tides, wind and fog make the stretch of water in San Francisco Bay very difficult to read.

"It's sort of got all the variables against you," Davies explained. "You've got strong currents that are changing all the time, and they're not always going in the same direction. They're often different from one side of the course to the other, and different from the top to the bottom of the course.

"The wind can be very tricky to judge as well - but we're definitely feeling more comfortable out there."

The Kiwi syndicate will base themselves in San Francisco from May next year ahead of the start of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series beginning July 4. They remained off the pace in the fleet racing championship of the America's Cup World Series after two middling performances on the third day of racing in San Francisco. Dean Barker and his crew failed to improve on their fifth position on the leaderboard after a fifth and sixth placing in yesterday's races.

It could have been much worse for Team New Zealand after a poor start in the opening race saw them trail the fleet. But they managed to salvage a respectable fifth after finding good pressure on the last beat to steal a few extra places.

British Olympic great Ben Ainslie leads the fleet racing section of the regatta, having recorded top three finishes in all four races, including two wins. The two Artemis teams hold down second and third respectively, with Terry Hutchinson leading his stable-mate Nathan Outteridge by two points. Jimmy Spithill's Oracle team have slipped back to fourth after a quiet afternoon on the water, recording a sixth and a fifth.

In the match-racing quarter-finals earlier in the day, Outteridge in Artemis Red scored a surprise win over Russell Coutts after a confusing finish to the race. Coutts appeared to have won the race convincingly, but was later ruled a DNF by the principal race officer after rounding the wrong mark on his way to the finish line. Outteridge will face Team New Zealand in today's semifinal.

- Herald on Sunday

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