SAN FRANCISCO >> For five heart-stopping seconds, Emirates Team New Zealand’s 72-foot catamaran hung on the edge of catastrophe in the middle of an America’s Cup race on San Francisco Bay.
The normally spot-on Kiwis rushed a tack during a close-quarters duel with defending champion Oracle Team USA and couldn’t get their 131-foot wing sail to pop through to the correct side. The big black-and-red cat began to tip over, its starboard hull rising high into the air.
Skipper Dean Barker didn’t know quite where the point of no return was.
“But I’d say half a degree more would have been the number,” Barker said.
The boat paused and then the airborne hull splashed down, to the relief of both crews. Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill skillfully steered clear of the Kiwi boat and sailed on to a 52-second victory in Race 8 that might be a tipping point, in more ways than one.
It was just the second victory of the series for the American syndicate, which has now erased the two-point penalty it was assessed in the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year-history of the America’s Cup.
Team New Zealand leads 6-0 and still needs three wins to take the oldest trophy in international sports to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Oracle Team USA, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, needs to win nine races to keep the Auld Mug.
Race 9 was abandoned just as the boats turned onto the windward third leg with New Zealand in the lead. That’s because the wind had exceeded the 22.6-knot limit during a five-minute period.
Races 9 and 10 are scheduled for Sunday.
After two demoralizing defeats Thursday, Oracle Team USA made several changes to its black cat and sailed much better upwind, which is where they’d been getting stomped by the Kiwis.
“Mate, it is on,” Spithill said. “This is the turning point. We’ve been saying it all along, that we can win races. It really felt the last few days that the Kiwis have been thinking about where to put the trophy and I can tell you we’re going to fight the whole way.”
Spithill, an Australian who was at the wheel when Oracle capsized its first boat during a training run in October, was relieved that the Kiwis didn’t go over as the cats zigzagged toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Look, it was close to being a huge pileup. It would have been serious if I weren’t able to bail out. ” Spithill said. “You never like to see that. I’ve got a lot of mates on that team. I was looking at my mate Glenn Ashby up there and was thinking, ‘Oh God, I hope those guys are going to be all right.’ For us, we were glad they didn’t go over.”
Barker said the crew tried to tack a split second too soon. It was another reminder of how dangerous the new boats can be when they’re pushed to the limits.
“I think we had someone looking down on us giving us a little help,” Barker said. “I think that’s as close as you can ever possibly get before it would have ended up over on its side.”
The regatta was marred by the death of British double Olympic medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson on May 9 when Artemis Racing capsized during a training run.
Oracle Team USA’s first catamaran capsized on a rough day on the bay in mid-October. An ebb tide swept the boat out past the Golden Gate Bridge, and the churning waves destroyed the complex wing sail. That cost the syndicate about four months of training time, one of many reasons why Oracle has struggled against the Kiwis.
If there is a capsize during competition, the race would be canceled so that both yachts’ chase boats can aid in recovery efforts. Those boats carry divers and paramedics. After Simpson was trapped under Artemis’ smashed boat, sailors began wearing body armor, knives, emergency air supplies, underwater locator devices and self-lowering equipment to go with the crash helmets and life vests they already wore.
Had the boat capsized and been seriously damaged it could have been catastrophic for the Kiwis. They have another boat, but it was cannibalized for parts to finish their current boat. Oracle Team USA had another race-ready boat in its shed on Pier 80.
With the Kiwis on port tack and Oracle on starboard, Team New Zealand tried a lee-bow, quickly tacking back onto starboard to try to force the Americans away.
The wing sail doesn’t blow through during a tack but has to be pumped through by the grinders who power the hydraulic system. They didn’t have time to do it after tactician Ray Davies quickly called for the tack and the wing was in the wrong articulation.
Three sailors were on the starboard hull as it rose in the air. The other eight, including Barker, were on the port hull. Someone on the boat was hollering “Hydro, hydro.”
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is not too bad of an exit from here,’ ” Barker said. “I was on the right side. It was a scary thought for the guys on the other side because it definitely would be a long way up. It’s racing in these boats. They are powerful and you’ve got to sail them well. We’re at the top end of wind range today and you’ve got to make sure you are error-free around the course. We made one mistake and it cost us the race, but it also came very, very close to costing us a lot more than that.”
The Kiwis kept grinding and got the wing to pop the right way.
That encounter that led to the near-capsize was set up because Oracle tactician Ben Ainslie decided to split away from the Kiwis after rounding the second gate mark 8 seconds behind. Ainslie, a British star who has four Olympic gold medals and one silver, replaced John Kostecki on Thursday.
Because the American boat was coming in on favored starboard tack, Team New Zealand was penalized. The near-capsize had already done in the Kiwis, and slowing to clear the penalty allowed Oracle to sail well ahead.