United States Defeats New Zealand to Win America’s Cup After Stunning Comeback

Oracle Team USA has completed one of the greatest comebacks in sports history

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Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Oracle Team USA skippered by James Spithill in action during race 17 of the America's Cup Finals in San Francisco, Sept. 24, 2013.

The United States has defeated New Zealand in the 34th America’s Cup, capping off the greatest comeback in the history of yacht racing, and one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.

One week ago, Oracle Team USA trailed Emirates Team New Zealand 8-1, with the Kiwis needing just one more win to clinch the Cup, but the Americans never gave up hope. Oracle proceeded to reel off seven consecutive wins to pull even after Tuesday’s racing, setting up Wednesday’s climactic 19th race showdown on San Francisco Bay.

At 1:39 p.m. Pacific time the Americans crossed the finish line ahead of the New Zealanders, setting off jubilation and euphoria among fans of the U.S. team. For billionaire tech magnate Larry Ellison, who spent $100 million on the Oracle team, the victory was a sweet vindication. For the Kiwis, the stunning collapse amounts to the one of the worst defeats in New Zealand sporting history.

The Kiwis had been in a position to win for an entire week, but wind and time limit rules stymied them for days, and several races were postponed. Over the last week, the drama increased as Oracle, the defending champion, won seven straight races, setting up the greatest comeback in America’s Cup history. Last Wednesday, New Zealand led 8-1. After Tuesday’s races, Oracle had tied the regatta at 8-8. On Wednesday, the Americans prevailed. The trophy will now be in the possession of Oracle Team USA, which will get to determine the timing and location of the next America’s Cup.

The 34th America’s Cup bore little resemblance to earlier Cup regattas. The two teams competed in high-powered, 72-foot catamarans, which have two thin hulls, unlike the single-hulled boats that were used during most of the Cup’s 162-year history. With their 131-foot carbon fiber wing sails, the AC72s are capable of reaching more than 50 miles per hour while flying feet above the water on underwater foils, called daggerboards, which lift the boats out of the water, reducing drag and increasing speed.

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Billionaire Oracle mogul Larry Ellison’s team won the America’s Cup in 2010 and thus earned the right to determine the regatta’s format. He called for the new AC72-class catamaran, which can hydroplane on top of the water faster than the speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge. The AC72s are among the fastest, most sophisticated, most expensive, and most dangerous sailboats ever built. One sailor, Andrew Simpson, died in training, prompting increased safety measures. During the regatta, the sailors wore helmets and breathing devices in case they were trapped underneath the boats.

The Kiwis, led by their cool-headed skipper Dean Barker, had a speed edge over Oracle Team USA for the first half of the competition. In the second half of the regatta, the Americans improved their boat speed by tweaking their wing sail and improving their ability to hydrofoil with both hulls out of the water while sailing upwind, a maneuver rarely, if ever, seen before in yacht racing with boats of this size.

Sailboat racing is an obsession for the island nation of New Zealand. Nearly one million Kiwi viewers tuned in to watch the daily races, according to industry estimates — in a nation with a population of 4.5 million. In a twist that added further drama, Oracle Team USA was led by an Australian racing champion named Jimmy Spithill. Needless to say, there was no love lost between Spithill and Barker, the Kiwi skipper. “There’s fierce rivalry between Australia and New Zealand in sport,” Spithill said during a post-race press conference earlier in the regatta. “It’s crazy how deep it is. We’re in a battle now and honestly we both want to kill each other.” Presumably, he was using a figure of speech.

Oracle Team USA was penalized two points in a cheating scandal during an earlier stage of the event, which meant the Americans needed to win 11 races, compared to nine races for the Kiwis. (That’s why there were 19 races in a 17-race regatta). Oracle team-members were found to have placed illegal weights on their boats, in what that the AP called “the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year-history of the America’s Cup.” Three Oracle team-members were banned from the event. Only one member of Oracle USA’s racing team was American, prompting calls that future Cup events institute a so-called “nationality rule,” so that team crews reflect their home nation.

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The origins of the America’s Cup date back to 1851, and a yacht race off Britain’s Isle of Wight. A schooner named America, representing the New York Yacht Club, passed Queen Victoria’s Royal Yacht in first place, prompting the monarch to ask one of her attendants who was in second place. The response: “Your Majesty, there is no second.” That remark, the most famous in America’s Cup history, would define the ethos of competition that has prevailed in the event ever since.

The winner’s trophy was renamed the America’s Cup, after the victorious schooner, and was donated to the New York Yacht Club under the terms of the Deed of Gift — the regatta’s governing document — which established the guidelines for “a perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition between nations.” The Americans retained the trophy for 132 years until 1983, when Australia II stunned Defender, the U.S. boat helmed by Dennis Connor, then considered America’s top match racer.

For years, America’s Cup organizers have struggled to make the event more accessible to a mass audience. The current regatta features groundbreaking technology developed by SportVision, which uses GPS positioning to superimpose graphics detailing boat, wind, and water speed during the television broadcasts. The cost and complexity of the AC72s — it takes as much $100 million to mount a campaign — kept many potential challengers from competing, prompting speculation that future America’s Cup events will be sailed on smaller, less expensive boats.