By Jonathan Weber
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA stayed alive in the America's Cup sailing regatta on Thursday, taking the first of the day's two scheduled races by a comfortable 31-second margin and preventing Emirates Team New Zealand from closing out the competition.
The second race was canceled after the wind exceeded the limits, which has become a familiar pattern resulting largely from a decision earlier this summer to lower the wind limits following a fatal training accident.
In the race that did take place, Oracle won the start with a shrewd maneuver that pushed New Zealand away from the line, and then showed impressive speed on the critical upwind leg before dashing home for the victory.
New Zealand has mostly dominated the best-of-17 finals series and now holds an eight to two lead.
"We know the nation is watching us, but once you get into the start box you don't really think about that," said Grant Dalton, managing director of the New Zealand team and a grinder on their 72-foot catamaran.
The Kiwis turned in the latest of several textbook performances in moving to the brink of victory on Wednesday, and seemed to have beaten back an Oracle revival that saw the U.S. boat win two thrilling races over the weekend.
But Thursday's first race suggested the momentum could be shifting once again as Oracle showed the speed, tactics and boat handling it needs to match the polished Kiwi team.
"We have to finish this thing," said Ben Gordon, a 36 year old New Zealander who lives in San Francisco. "The boat's are dead even and it's getting a bit dodgy."
Wednesday's second race was also canceled due to a strong breeze and outgoing tide. The AC72 catamarans can attain speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, but are hard to control and potentially subject to capsize and equipment failure in high winds.
Sweden's Artemis Racing suffered a disastrous accident in May, when its boat broke apart and capsized, killing British Olympian Andrew "Bart" Simpson. That incident, which came after an Oracle boat capsized late last year, prompted a series of rule changes including a substantial decrease in the wind limits.
Ellison's team won the America's Cup in Valencia, Spain in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules for this year's competition, including choosing to race on the AC72s and to hold the regatta on windy San Francisco Bay.
The Kiwis first won the America's Cup in 1995 and successfully defended it in 2000 before losing the trophy three years later to Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi in a disastrous campaign that left the team in shambles.
(additional reporting by Noel Randewich)
(Editing by Alden Bentley)