SAN FRANCISCO — Emirates Team New Zealand nearly capsized in Race 8 of the America’s Cup, allowing defending champion Oracle Team USA to sail away to a 52-second victory Saturday on windy San Francisco Bay.
In the most heart-stopping moment of the regatta, the Kiwis’ 131-foot wing sail didn’t pop to the correct side, apparently because of a lack of pressure in the hydraulic system, as the crew tried to tack on the American boat to keep its slight lead.
The 72-foot catamaran began to tip over, with its starboard hull rising high into the air. The boat appeared to come within a few degrees of going over before the crew got the wing to pop and the boat splashed down.
Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill did a great job of executing a crash tack to get clear of the Kiwi boat while it was hanging in the air. 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.
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.
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 because the wind had exceeded the 22.6-knot limit during a five-minute period.
Races 9 and 10 are scheduled for Sunday.
With the wind pushing the upper limit, race officials knew it could be a wild day among the whitecaps on the bay.
The Kiwis’ near-capsize was a scary moment because this 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.
In October, Spithill was at the helm of Oracle Team USA’s first catamaran when it capsized on a rough day on the bay. An ebb tide swept the boat out past the Golden Gate Bridge, destroying the complex wing sail and costing the syndicate four months of training time. That capsize is among the many reasons why Oracle has struggled against the Kiwis this regatta.
If there is a capsize during competition, the race will be canceled so that both yachts’ chase boats can aid in recovery efforts. Those boats carry divers and paramedics. The race crews already wore crash helmets and life vests. After Simpson was trapped under Artemis’ smashed boat, sailors began wearing body armor, knives, emergency air supplies, underwater locator devices and self-lowering equipment.
After two demoralizing losses Thursday, Oracle made several changes to its cat to try to make it perform better sailing upwind, where the Kiwis were continually pulling away.
Spithill botched the start Saturday with an overly aggressive move and Team New Zealand sprinted to a 3-second lead at the first mark. The lead was also 3 seconds at the leeward mark.
Team New Zealand held its lead sailing into the wind toward the Golden Gate Bridge, but Oracle did a much better job on the leg than it did in earlier races. Oracle cut into the Kiwi lead and the boats were separated by only about 10 yards when Team New Zealand almost went over.