Things got a bit tense down at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron headquarters early this morning.

The smell of fried bacon and eggs wafted through the Westhaven clubrooms, packed with around 500 keen local yachties, but all thought of breakfast was forgotten as Emirates Team New Zealand set sail against defending champ Oracle Team USA in the first race of the final series of the 34th America's Cup.

Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) vice commodore Andy Anderson said before the race he was "quietly optimistic" of a win.

"It'll be great getting this first race away because then we'll really have a measure of each boat, and I think we'll have a better idea how we're going to do for the next few races.


"I think we'll be elated or slightly depressed, depending on the outcome."

Mr Anderson would "absolutely" like to see Cup back in New Zealand and said the event brings huge benefit to the country.

"We've got the trophy cabinet up there ready for it, in its rightful place. But let's see what we can do today."

Nervous excitement was palpable as the San Francisco Bay race got underway. The room let out a collective cheer each time NZ tacked wisely, breath was gasped in as the two teams' catamarans nearly collided as they crisscrossed the bay, and an earsplitting whoop of joy was emitted when the Kiwis closely won the first race.

Ian Bourgeois, chairman of the RNZYS youth development training programme, has been sailing for 60 of his 67 years.

"You could see the nervousness in the room," he noted after the tight 36-second win. "It's because we know we're in with a chance."

But Mr Bourgeois was wary of getting too cocky after the first race.

"In terms of the race, it was a close but convincing victory. But it's never over before it's over. We've all been here before."

The RNZYS members have close ties to the Kiwi crew in San Francisco. Youth development training programme coach Guy Pilkington was particularly proud of the three programme graduates currently crewing Emirates Team New Zealand - Jeremy Lomas, James Dagg and Chris Ward.

"It's fantastic," he said after the first race. "I was a bit nervous going in, because I didn't know what to expect."

Mr Pilkington is confident he coaches the next batch of America's Cup sailors, some of whom competed in the inaugural Youth America's Cup last week.

"Go Team New Zealand," he shouted suddenly, before the crew took out the second race by 52 seconds.

The atmosphere was a boisterous one, but something the Kiwi supporters were keeping very quiet about was the controversial decision last Tuesday by an international jury, which docked Oracle two points and kicked three team members out of the event for adding illegal weight to boats used in a previous preparatory Cup competition.

Lone Oracle supporter Bill Rehm stood out like a proud American at a NZ national sporting event tends to. The San Francisco native was wearing a red, white and blue jacket and a tee-shirt with 'America' emblazoned across the front.

Somewhat understandably, he griped about the penalty, unprecedented in the history of the 162-year-old event. Due to the penalty, Oracle needs to win 11 races to retain the Cup, while New Zealand only needs to win nine.

"America voluntarily gave up its awards and penalizing them in this way is unheard of," he said. "If Team New Zealand wins, there will always be a cloud of controversy over them."

Mr Rehm, a management consultant whose 48-foot-yacht is moored at Westhaven Marina, has lived in New Zealand for 16 years and been a RNZYS member for 14 of those.
He described himself as "objective" when watching the race.

"I would like Oracle to win the first two races so it is equal again. Let's see who wins when it's zero-zero."

But he seemed to take his team's loss on the chin, shrugging as hundreds of jubilant yachties around him whooped and cheered.

Geoff Crozier, a civil engineer from Glendowie, was "amazed" at the technology of the new 72-foot AC72 boats.

"We're now in a really good position in the Cup going forward. We've got first advantage and it's a morale booster. We need to keep that winning attitude," he said.

New Zealand first won the Cup in 1995 and successfully defended it in 2000.