The 50 stars and 13 stripes of the United States defender were given a painful battering by the four stars and union flag of New Zealand in the opening pair of the America’s Cup in San Francisco. The first race looked at one time to be really close and the defender, Oracle, at one time took the lead.
But the margin at the finish was 36 seconds and in the second race this stretched to 52 secs as the Kiwis pit in a flawless display.
The Americans’ Australian skipper Jimmy Spithill, who had temporarily lost his compatriot crewman Joey Newton as he slipped overboard during the first race pre-start manoeuvres, felt his aggressive tactics should have led to a penalty on the New Zealanders but the umpires thought not.
Dean Barker positioned his 72-foot wing-powered catamaran just ahead on the start line, led around the first mark and powered off downwind along the San Francisco shore between the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf.
A slight hesitation allowed Spithill through on the third leg but before the end of it Team New Zealand was ahead again. “”I’m really proud of the way the guys sailed and the preparation of the boat was spot on,” said Barker. “It’s going to be a battle right to the end.”
The boats are similar in performance, but New Zealand is match-fit after winning the Louis Vuitton elimination series and seemed to have a slight speed edge upwind. This continued in the second race, one which the Oracle team thought twice about contesting as it made hasty repairs, using a sticky film tape, to the wing. “It didn’t affect the second race,” said Spithill, who added: “There is a heap of lessons we will learn from today.” Said Glenn Ashby, the wing trimmer for New Zealand: “It’s tight racing, it’s hard, and you live and die.”
Oracle also changed its sail package, putting up a smaller headsail, but it made no difference.
There was at least the vital element of excitement as at last San Francisco Bay delivered cut and thrust racing and elevated those who are normally the underdogs – the tiny island nation of New Zealand – to the attack pack making life very uncomfortable for the bear of a state which is California.
That makes the score 2-0 but that discounts the plight of the Americans who start at minus two, a penalty imposed for the earlier misdemeanour of bringing the event into disrepute when members of the Oracle team tampered with some of their 45-foot boats.
New Zealand need seven more wins to reach the golden number of nine in the best of 17, Oracle still needs 11 wins. The second pair of races is scheduled for Sunday, which promises again to be sunny and breezy.