SAN FRANCISCO — Skipper Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup on Wednesday with one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
Spithill steered Oracle’s space-age, 72-foot catamaran to its eighth straight victory, speeding past Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand in the winner-take-all Race 19 on San Francisco Bay to keep the oldest trophy in international sports in the United States.
All but defeated a week ago, the 34-year-old Australian and his international crew twice rallied from seven-point deficits to win 9-8. Owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, Oracle Team USA was docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas and had to win 11 races to keep the Auld Mug.
After almost dunking its chances when it buried its bows in a wave shortly after the start, Oracle’s hulking black catamaran — with a big No. 17 on each hull — showed its incredible speed when it reeled in the Kiwis while the boats zigzagged toward the Golden Gate Bridge on the windward third leg.
The New Zealanders were game despite being stranded on match point for a week. Spithill and crew still had to sail their best to end the longest, fastest and by far wildest America’s Cup on a course between the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
Team New Zealand had the lead the first time the boats crossed on opposite tacks. By the time they crossed again, the American boat — with only one American on its 11-man crew — had the lead.
As Oracle worked to stay ahead, tactician Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from Britain, implored his mates by saying, “This is it. This is it. Working your (rears) off.”
It had to have been a gut-wrenching moment in New Zealand, which has been on edge for a week as the Kiwis failed to close out the victory on a warm, sunny afternoon.
The Kiwis had been faster upwind in running away with races early, but Oracle constantly made changes to make its cat a speed freak.
As Spithill rounded the third mark onto the downwind fourth leg, his catamaran sprang onto its hydrofoils at 35 mph, its hulls completely out of the water, and headed for history.
There were hugs and handshakes after he steered the cat across the finish line, 44 seconds ahead of Team New Zealand. Ellison, who has spent an estimated $500 million the last 11 years in pursuing, winning and now defending the silver trophy, hopped on board and the crew sprayed him with champagne.
It wasn’t always so jubilant, of course, but Spithill refused to let his team fold after the penalties were announced four days before racing started.
How big was this win?
In sailing terms, it was the equivalent of the Boston Red Sox sweeping the final four games of the 2004 ALCS over the New York Yankees, the only 3-0 comeback in major league history. It’s also comparable to the Philadelphia Flyers overcoming a 0-3 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the 2010 NHL playoffs.
As stirring of a comeback as it was for Spithill and his mates, it was a staggering loss for Team New Zealand. Barker, 41, was looking for redemption after losing the America’s Cup to Alinghi of Switzerland in 2003 and then steering the losing boat in 2007, also against Alinghi.
Team New Zealand was funded in part by its government.
This was the first time the America’s Cup was raced inshore and San Francisco Bay provided a breathtaking racecourse.
The catamarans were the vision of Ellison and his sailing team CEO, Russell Coutts, who is now a five-time America’s Cup winner.
Powered by a 131-foot wing sail, the cats have hit 50 mph, faster than the speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge.
After Artemis Racing’s Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed in a capsize on May 9, sailors began wearing body armor, knives, an air tank and breathing tube, self-lowering equipment and underwater locator devices.