Byline: Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Two sailing powerhouses that have spent the summer trading verbal jabs are finally set to meet in the ultimate grudge match: the America’s Cup.
Emirates Team New Zealand zipped through a thick fog on San Francisco Bay and past Italy’s Luna Rossa again Aug. 25, capturing the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series 7-1 and advancing to the premier event against defending champion and bitter rival Oracle Team USA.
The best-of-17 America’s Cup starts Sept 7.
The Kiwis crushed the conditions and the competition in the challenger finals. The closest margin was 1 minute, 28 seconds, and Luna Rossa’s lone win came when Team New Zealand dropped out because the electronics system that controls the hydraulics of its catamaran failed.
The Kiwis won the final race — with the lightest wind of the series, thanks to a fog that blanketed San Francisco Bay — by the largest margin: 3:20.
“To win the America’s Cup, you have to win the Louis Vuitton Cup. And we’ve come here to win the America’s Cup,” said Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker.
This is the fifth time since 1995 that Team New Zealand has reached the America’s Cup match. The only time it didn’t make it was 2010, which was a one-off between Oracle and Switzerland’s Alinghi, following a bitter court fight.
Barker believes the challenger series helped Team New Zealand learn the course and polish its performances, foiling faster — and even upwind — and pulling off more foiling gybes under all kinds of currents and conditions.
Oracle tactician Darren Bundock brushed that off. Bundock said his team is better prepared because it has had close competitions in two-boat practice races — something no other team can do — that are closer than anything the Kiwis faced in the challenger series.
Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena, whose team has always touted this summer as stepping stone to the next America’s Cup, said the team accomplished its goals and will continue to sail against the Kiwis in practices, to help both crews build experience. In a race for the oldest active trophy in international sports, this year’s America’s Cup offers one of the more scintillating subplots in recent times.
Team New Zealand managing director Grant Dalton, who also serves as a grinder (even though he’s 56), and Barker both accused Oracle Team USA of cheating after it was revealed the U.S. syndicate illegally modified its boats in the America’s Cup World Series, a warm-up to this summer’s racing.
Oracle filed a protest alleging that the Kiwis had trespassed to gather information in the case. Team New Zealand responded that the allegation was “laughable.” Oracle withdrew its protest.
Russell Coutts, a New Zealander who is CEO of Oracle Team USA, recently told the Associated Press that his syndicate is incredibly motivated because of Dalton’s barbs.
“I don’t have to give a motivational speech,” Coutts said. “This team is incredibly motivated to win. This has picked it up 10, 20, 30 notches. They can thank Grant Dalton.”
Additionally, Dalton and Coutts traded insults at a gala dinner in Auckland earlier this year. Dalton criticized Oracle Team USA owner Larry Ellison because his vision of a grand regatta with a dozen or more challengers fell far short, as the cost of the boats and the perceived peril of sailing them kept several competitors out.
Coutts responded by criticizing Dalton’s record and wondering why New Zealand couldn’t find someone younger to sail on the boat. Coutts, 51, who won the America’s Cup three times as a skipper and once as Oracle Team USA’s CEO, doesn’t sail on the U.S.-backed boat and didn’t sail in the syndicate’s two-race sweep of Alinghi of Switzerland in the 2010 America’s Cup.
Despite the country each represents, the crews are quite contrasting.
Team New Zealand has a strong national identity, representing a small island nation where people are vastly outnumbered by sheep. Because they rely on government funding, the Kiwis have said Team New Zealand will cease to exist if it doesn’t win the America’s Cup.
Oracle, by comparison, has a multinational crew, including Australian-born skipper Jimmy Spithill.