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U.S. America's Cup team, already in a hole, opens title defense

Oracle Team USA had been favored in America's Cup, but penalties imposed by race overseers have given Emirates Team New Zealand an advantage.

September 06, 2013|By David Wharton
  • Oracle Team USA will have to win 11 races to take the regatta at the 34 America's Cup finals this weekend.
Oracle Team USA will have to win 11 races to take the regatta at the 34 America's… (Eric Risberg / Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO -- The last few days have put a trace of wariness in Jimmy Spithill's voice.

Spithill is the skipper for Oracle Team USA, the racing boat that until recently had been favored to defend its America's Cup title in San Francisco this month.

Expectations have shifted since an international jury — responding to an incident during preliminary races — hit the Americans with a slew of penalties.

With the 34th America's Cup finals beginning this weekend on the bay, Oracle must win 11 races to take the regatta. The challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand, needs only nine victories.

Even more significant, a vital Oracle crew member has been banned from the competition.

"This hasn't been the ideal preparation," Spithill said, adding: "I don't think we're the favorite going into Saturday."

At least one expert following the competition agreed.

"It's a coin toss," said Jack Griffin, who is covering the action for "We're going to learn a lot with the very first races."

The America's Cup is unlike any other major sporting event in that the defending champion gets to pick not only the site of the competition but also the type of boats to be used.

After his team won in 2010, technology billionaire Larry Ellison decided to bring the event to his current hometown and eschew traditional monohulls in favor of massive, expensive catamarans that sail at far greater speeds, with far greater risks.

The 72-foot boats are powered not by sails but by a towering rigid wing. They can accelerate to well upward of 40 knots and, at high speeds, rise out of the water on thin hydrofoils.

The controversy over Ellison's choices intensified after only three countries challenged for the Cup and a training accident this past spring claimed the life of Andrew "Bart" Simpson, who was sailing on a Swedish boat.

Heading into the competition, experts expected Oracle to have a technological advantage. But the New Zealand team looked strong while dominating the recently completed challenger series.

As New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said: "It's going to be a very, very interesting weekend to try to get a feel for how the two boats shape up."

Teamwork could prove decisive.

It was recently discovered that Oracle had added improper ballast to the smaller, 45-foot catamarans it raced in a series of pre-Cup regattas dating back to last year.

The penalties carried over to this competition. In addition to being docked two points, Oracle lost two members of its shore crew and grinder Matt Mitchell was suspended for four races. The team also must pay a $250,000 fine.

Far more costly, wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder, who has sailed beside Spithill for years, was banished. The man stepping into his spot – Kyle Langford, who was given a warning by the jury – is well-regarded but lacks experience with the skipper.

"The guy trimming the wings has the gas pedal and the skipper has the steering wheel," Griffin said. "They have to be like [conjoined] twins. They have to read each other's minds."

Their interaction is especially critical as the boat tries to maintain speed, and stay up on its hydrofoils, through downwind turns.

Each decision can be critical in races held close enough to shore that spectators can watch from grandstands. The boats have relatively scant room to maneuver.

"With the boundaries, it does make it a little bit of a tighter course," said Oracle tactician John Kostecki, who grew up sailing the bay. "But you definitely can pass."

After a tough few weeks on shore, Spithill and his crew were looking forward to leaving their troubles behind.

"It's like there is a real hunger now, and a real purpose in the team, given what has transpired," he said. "Something's clicked. The boys just cannot wait to get out there."

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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