America's Cup: Near-catastrophe adds new edge to big cats' duel

By Dana Johannsen

Team New Zealand bounced back quickly from their near-capsize in yesterday's opening race. Photo / AP
Team New Zealand bounced back quickly from their near-capsize in yesterday's opening race. Photo / AP

They didn't flip the boat, but the 34th America's Cup match went through another somersault yesterday as Team New Zealand teetered on the edge of disaster.

Just as many were beginning to think Team NZ had one hand firmly locked around the Auld Mug, they came precariously close to scuttling their campaign with one miscued tack. The near-capsize reminded us all of just how on the edge the AC72 racing machines are - given that one small mistake can mean the end, victory won't be assured until they have nine points on the board.

With yesterday's second race terminated early in the third leg because of strong winds, it was hard to get a gauge of what effect, if any, the near-miss had on Team NZ. So they head into another day of racing today with plenty of unanswered questions, adding another layer of intrigue to what has been a fascinating battle.

Will the incident rattle Team NZ? Will Oracle's win prove a momentum shifter? Have the Cup defenders nullified the Kiwi boat's upwind advantage through their desperate last-ditch modifications?

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Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill believes while his team remain 6-0 down in the series (yesterday's win was not counted on the scoreboard as part of their penalty imposed by the international jury), the result changes everything.

It wasn't just the win that gave Spithill cause for confidence. After a couple of subtle modifications to the boat during Saturday's lay day, USA-17 looked to be quicker upwind yesterday, and their crew-work was much sharper.

"This is a key moment for us in the regatta, we clearly made a big step in the boat's performance, the crew are sailing better, we didn't get off the line well and it didn't faze the guys one bit," said Spithill.

"We've been saying in-house that we don't care what the scoreline is, we can still win races, and we're going to fight the whole way to the end."

While it was the first time in the regatta Team NZ returned to the sheds after a day of racing without at least one point in the bag, the Kiwi crew appeared remarkably relaxed about yesterday's passage of events.

They acknowledge they came within half a degree of tipping out of the regatta, but tactician Ray Davies stresses that is the nature of racing in these AC72 catamarans.

Davies said the way his team responded after their setback in the opening race of the day meant they would head into today's two races with a lot of confidence.

Team NZ could have opted to play their postponement card and headed back into the shore to regroup, but they shrugged off the incident and got straight back into it for race two. The Kiwi crew were looking in pretty good shape, too, before high winds forced the termination of the race. Dean Barker won the start after fiercely protecting the leeward end of the line, and they didn't hold back down the first run, hitting speeds of more than 47 knots to lead by seven seconds at the bottom mark.

They were looking comfortable on the upwind leg as well before the race committee pulled the plug because the winds exceeded the prescribed 22.6-knot limit.

"We need to think of the whole day's racing in context - we took a lot out of the day," said Davies. "That second race we felt we had our wheels back upwind and we had a pretty healthy lead when the race got terminated."

Team NZ need three more wins to take the America's Cup. Oracle have now wiped their two-point penalty and any further wins for the defenders will be scored.

- NZ Herald

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