SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA’s bid to turn the tide in its floundering America’s Cup campaign by bringing sailing supers tar Ben Ainslie aboard failed on Thursday, when Emirates Team New Zealand crushed them in a fifth race.
The government-backed Kiwis now have scored more than half the victories they need to bring home the trophy the yachting world refers to as the Auld Mug.
After winning the start in its high-speed, 72-foot catamaran, Oracle lost the lead upwind on the third leg,, and New Zealand surged to the finish 47 seconds ahead.
The Kiwis spotted the American boat’s Achilles heel - its poor tacking ability - and forced it into having to perform a dozen of the taxing maneuvers
Ainslie, knighted for his racing success on the water, tried to rescue Oracle, taking over on Thursday as the team’s top decision-maker.
“Ben did a great job,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. “We can’t change the last race. What we can do is go out and win a race, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
A second race is scheduled on Thursday.
The most successful Olympic sailor of all time, Ainslie will sail as the tactician aboard the 72-foot catamaran in place of American John Kostecki. Earlier this week a tactical blunder by Kostecki cost Oracle a lead, allowed the Kiwis to cruise into a commanding fourth victory, and prompted the American team to call for an unusual time-out.
“It’s clear we need to improve performance, and with that comes changes,” Kostecki, 49, said. “I’ll fill whatever role is best to help us win.”
Team New Zealand needs to win four more races to take the 162-year-old trophy back to its sailing-crazed island nation, while software mogul Larry Ellison’s Oracle team still needs to win 10 races to hold onto the Cup. Oracle started the regatta two points behind because of an unprecedented jury-imposed punishment for illegally modifying the team’s smaller, prototype boats sailed in warm-up races.
“I’m happy to step up and do what’s best for the team,” Ainslie said in a prepared statement. The 36-year-old sailor has been at the helm of Oracle’s second yacht during training matches.
Though Oracle flies the American flag, substituting Ainslie for Kostecki leaves only one U.S. sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby. All but two of the Kiwi sailors hail from New Zealand.
Oracle’s devastating loss on Tuesday prompted the team to play its so-called postponement card and cancel a second race of the day so it could regroup. The only crew change was the promotion of Ainslie - a record five-time Olympic medalist knighted by the Princess Royal at Buckingham Palace in March.
A supreme tactician, Ainslie is known for bouncing back from bad races. His work as a sparring partner for Team New Zealand’s skipper Dean Barker in Valencia, Spain, in 2007 could help him in the races for the America’s Cup trophy. Ainslie has set winning the “Auld Mug,” as the Cup is called, as his primary goal.
Oracle was winning the race against powerhouse New Zealand on Tuesday when it tried to do something that has never before been done — to lift its foils out of the water while tacking. The team bungled the maneuver, almost stopped dead and gave up an eight-second lead.
The international jury that punished Oracle in the biggest cheating scandal in Cup history also expelled Kostecki’s brother-in-law, first-choice Oracle wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder for making illegal boat alterations.
Kostecki grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay and was hired as Oracle’s tactician at least in part for his insider knowledge.
Ellison won the world’s oldest sporting trophy in Valencia in 2010 and with it the right to choose his home San Francisco Bay waters as the venue and the fragile and hard-to-handle twin-hulled yachts with 13-story rigid wing sails as the vessels.
Sailors have criticized the Oracle chief executive’s decisions, particularly after British Olympic gold medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed when the AC72 of Sweden’s Artemis Racing capsized during a May practice exercise.
Ainslie grew up sailing with and against Simpson in British youth squads. Losing Simpson was crushing for Ainslie. He delivered a tribute at his friend’s funeral.
Editing by Alden Bentley