SAN FRANCISCO — This America’s Cup would be tied at 8 if defending champion Oracle Team USA hadn’t been hit with the harshest penalties in the regatta’s 162-year history.
No worries, says Australian-born skipper, Jimmy Spithill. He’s a boxer as well as a sailor, and his spark and motivation has helped spur Oracle’s remarkable comeback from what seemed like certain defeat a week ago.
Spithill put his bows down, accelerated his 72-foot catamaran off the starting line and pulled clear of Emirates Team New Zealand today to claim a fifth straight victory and stay alive in the longest America’s Cup in history.
The 34-year-old Spithill and his brain trust of Olympic gold medalists — British tactician Ben Ainslie and Australian strategist Tom Slingsby — kept the American-backed boat ahead the whole way around the five-leg course on San Francisco Bay for a 33-second victory.
Although the teams are tied on the water, the Kiwis lead 8-6 because Oracle was docked two points and wing sail trimmer Dirk de Ridder was tossed from the regatta after it was discovered that the syndicate illegally modified boats during warmup races called the America’s Cup World Series.
That shrinking lead no doubt has all of New Zealand on edge. The Kiwis have been on match point since Wednesday, only to watch Spithill and Oracle’s improved 72-foot catamaran sail ahead in a determined attempt to keep the oldest trophy in international sports.
Oracle Team USA, owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison, needs three more wins to keep the Auld Mug.
Because Race 16 was delayed a half-hour due to light wind, Race 17 was postponed until Tuesday. Race 18, if necessary, also is scheduled for Tuesday.
On Sept. 12, with Oracle trailing 6 to minus-1, Spithill raised eyebrows when he said, “I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be. They’ve almost got it in the bag. That’s my motivation.”
Now Spithill is attempting to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. His five-race run has matched the longest winning streak in America’s Cup match history.
Rebounding from the penalties is “not frustrating; it’s actually motivating, to be honest,” Spithill said today. “The thing I’ve found is when it’s very difficult and very challenging, that’s when it’s the most rewarding. We’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to work hard. We feel like we’ve made great progress with the performance of the boat. I think that was evident today in lighter air. As per usual, we’re going to go back tonight, work very, very hard, and come out tomorrow swinging.”
Oracle CEO Russell Coutts said the team’s management and skippers didn’t know about the illegal modifications that led to the penalties. Besides the cheating scandal, Oracle’s training program was set back four months after its first boat capsized in mid-October and was swept out past the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We’re sailors. We’re athletes. We’re not about the politics and all of that sort of stuff,” Spithill said. “Life’s not fair sometimes. ... We can win this Cup. They can take as many races as they want. But for us, we know we can win this Cup if we win the next few races. So we can control our own destiny there.
“The boys are incredibly fired up. I’ve never seen them like this before. The entire team, there’s a lot of great energy there.”
Skipper Dean Barker said the Kiwis remain positive but know they have to improve.
“We still wouldn’t trade positions,” Barker said. “We still would rather be on match point than having to win three more. It is definitely a battle. There’s no question the Oracle guys have stepped it up a lot and we need to be able to respond.”
Barker had Emirates Team New Zealand in the favored leeward position crossing the starting line before Spithill got Oracle Team USA onto its hydrofoils, with both hulls out of the water, and sped into the lead rounding the first mark.
Spithill, Ainslie and Slingsby are among the world’s most competitive sailors.
Oracle Team USA has won seven of the last nine races, and nine of 11 since Spithill replaced American tactician John Kostecki with Ainslie, who won four straight Olympic gold medals to go with his silver medal from 1996. Ainslie clearly has good communications with Slingsby, who won a gold medal at the London Olympics.
Ainslie wasn’t supposed to sail in this regatta, until Oracle got into such a big hole. He had been steering the backup boat during training to help get Spithill up to speed.
“When you have someone back there that can steer the boat as well, is incredibly powerful,” Spithill said. “It’s fantastic having another helmsman on board because you can talk about things. He knows the modes of the boat, there’s certain maneuvers he gets involved and he knows exactly what you’re thinking. One key difference I see in our afterguard is that we’ve got Ben and Tom in the back. We’ve got two of the world’s best sailors that can bounce ideas off each other.”
Coutts said the crew is getting more comfortable.
“That performance was clinical. In my view, their best race yet,” Coutts told The Associated Press. “It’s certainly looking more promising today than it was a week ago.”
This America’s Cup stretched into its 17th day, making it the longest in history. The 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, lasted 16 days and ended with Barker and the hard-luck Kiwis losing the silver trophy in a five-race sweep by Coutts and Alinghi of Switzerland.