By Jonathan Weber
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA prevailed in a dramatic winner-take-all showdown with Emirates Team New Zealand on Wednesday to win the 34th America's Cup, completing a stirring comeback that helped make the once-troubled event among the most exciting in sailing history.
For Oracle and its hard-charging skipper, Jimmy Spithill, the win was an extraordinary sporting triumph, one that saw the team climb back from a seemingly insurmountable 8-1 deficit in the best-of-17 series to keep the trophy it won three years ago.
The thrilling final races were also a ringing vindication of Oracle owner Larry Ellison's controversial decision to transform a once-staid yachting event into a TV-friendly, extreme-sports spectacle featuring huge catamarans flying across the natural amphitheatre of San Francisco Bay at 50 miles per hour.
"A lot of people who were never interested in sailing are now interested in sailing," Ellison said at a post-race news conference. "This regatta has changed sailing forever."
Emirates Team New Zealand, a plucky challenger that lacked a billionaire sponsor but nonetheless sailed to the brink of Cup victory, must now endure the ignominy of having let the prize slip from its grasp in the final days after a grueling two-year campaign of boat development and training.
Oracle dominated the last race, showcasing the dramatic improvements in boat speed on the upwind leg of the race that began to emerge a week ago. Oracle seemed to find an extra gear after losing most of the early races, and even overcame a pre-match penalty that required it win 11 races on the water.
The speed improvements appeared to come mainly from changes that enabled the boat to consistently "foil," or lift almost completely out of the water on small horizontal wings, even when heading upwind. The team also changed tacticians after its early losses, installing Britain's Ben Ainslie - the winningest Olympic sailor in history - in that spot in place of San Francisco native John Kostecki.
The winning Oracle team had only one American on board.
CELEBRATION AND HEARTBREAK
As one of the most coveted sporting prizes, the America's Cup over its 162-year history has fueled patriotism even in non sailors and winning the trophy was seen as a mark of a nation's seafaring greatness.
When Australia broke America's 132-year hold on the Cup in 1983 the jubilation brought normal business to a standstill.
Just a week ago, New Zealand fans had all but begun celebrating what seemed like an inevitable sporting and economic windfall for the longtime international sailing power, which supported the team with about $30 million in government funds in the hopes of bringing the trophy - and attendant tourism and publicity - back home.
But on Wednesday it was Ellison who was celebrating, joining the crew on the boat for a champagne shower in the moments after the finish.
New Zealand's soft-spoken skipper, Dean Barker, called the defeat "very difficult to accept--a very tough pill to swallow."
Fans who flocked to the San Francisco bayfront by the tens of thousands for the final races were treated to a little bit of everything: tense on-the-water duels, a near-capsize, winds that were alternately too light and too strong, and even a whale that threatened to disrupt racing.
While Kiwi fans in San Francisco seemed to outnumber Oracle supporters through much of the regatta, the big crowds on the final days were distinctly pro-U.S. as local fans cheered the Oracle comeback.
"Watching the comeback and seeing all these new boats, it's just so exciting," said Chris Barnsdale, 36, a Santa Rosa contractor who has never set foot aboard a sailboat and had never watched a race until last week. He drove an hour to see Wednesday's showdown.
"When it's a do-or-die situation, we just said we've gotta go watch that final race," he said.
The TV coverage also proved to be a highlight of the event, with three helicopters, two speedboats and cameras aboard the catamarans bringing the action home, augmented by state-of-the-art graphics that made it possible to follow the complex match-racing tactics.
The enthusiasm was a marked turnaround for the summer-long series of America's Cup events, which until a few weeks ago looked like a monumental bust. A British Olympic champion sailing for the Swedish team was killed in a training accident in May, calling the safety of the boats into question and forcing contentious rule changes.
New Zealand completely dominated the Louis Vuitton challenger series, which featured only three competitors and saw some "races" with only one boat charging around the course. A cheating scandal erupted, with Oracle ultimately being docked two races and losing a key crew member as punishment for illegal boat modifications in a preliminary series.
And Oracle had to recover from a capsize last year in which its boat was dragged out to sea and all but destroyed - an event Spithill cited Wednesday as a devastating moment but one that ultimately helped pull the team together.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, many locals bristled at city support for what has often been derided as a rich man's yacht race.
On Wednesday, though, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who negotiated to bring the Cup to San Francisco when he was mayor of the city, was also declaring victory. He lauded Ellison's vision, and said in a statement that the economic benefits for the city would be "well north" of the $480 million in economic activity generated by the most recent Super Bowl.
Ellison was non-committal as to whether he would hold the event in San Francisco next time. "Personally, I'd love to come back to San Francisco," he said, but suggested that extensive discussions with city officials lay ahead.
Oracle had plenty of advantages coming into the regatta. It was on its home turf, and had enough money to hire top sailors and build two equally matched boats to train against one another. The team was distinctly international, with New Zealander Russell Coutts, who led the Kiwis to Cup victory in 1995 and 2000, serving as CEO and the Australian Spithill as the skipper.
When only three challengers proved willing to take on the cost and complexity of the 72-foot carbon fiber yachts, Oracle's chances looked even better - though it faced criticism that the dearth of competitors had diminished interest in the event and made it a bad financial deal for San Francisco.
But the Kiwis, led by a 56-year-old managing director, Grant Dalton, who doubled as a workhorse on-board "grinder" during races, proved ingenious in developing their boat, particularly in pioneering the use of hydrofoils that lift both hulls almost entirely of the water to reduce drag.
Barker steered nearly flawless races through most of the competition as New Zealand first crushed the Italian team, Luna Rossa, in the challenger series, and then dominated Oracle in the early races of the Cup finals.
But now the America's Cup, with its rich history of dueling tycoons, gamesmanship and cutting-edge boat technology, appears firmly headed in the innovative direction Ellison envisioned.
Dalton, a fierce critic of the AC72s, said he still considered the boats too expensive for robust competition in the future, though he lauded the San Francisco venue.
Ellison said one unnamed team had already stepped up as a challenger for the next Cup. Dalton wouldn't say whether he would be back. But Ellison said: "An America's Cup without a New Zealand, it's just impossible to conceive of that."
(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich, Ronnie Cohen and Alden Bentley.; Editing by Alden Bentley)