SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – Oracle Team USA completed one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history on Wednesday to clinch the America’s Cup with victory over Team New Zealand in a decisive duel for the 162-year-old trophy.
The defending champions crossed the finish 44 seconds ahead of challenger New Zealand to claim the coveted prize 9-8, having fought back from 8-1 down in the series.
“Man oh man, what a race,’’ said USA skipper Jimmy Spithill.
“Facing the barrel of the gun at 8-1 and what do these guys do? They didn’t even flinch.’’
Cheers erupted from flag-waving fans on the shore of San Francisco Bay and the US team exchanged hugs as the catamaran zipped past the pier next to the finish.
Billionaire yachtsman Larry Ellison, owner of the US team, hopped on board from a chase boat and took part in popping the champagne.
“The engineering team, the guys on the water finally broke the code and figured out what to do,’’ Ellison said, giving much of the credit to Kiwi sailing legend and the team’s chief executive Russell Coutts.
“He talked about sailing lower and faster instead of higher and slower. Russell Coutts has never lost an America’s Cup, not a bad record. As long as Russell wants his job we are glad to have him.’’
But the result was greeted with despair in New Zealand where a one-word tweet from Prime Minister John Key summed up the mood of a nation: “Bugger.’’
The two rivals crossed the start of Race 19 almost even, and the Kiwis slipped around the first marker with a lead as the American’s flubbed the turn, dunking their bow.
New Zealand defended a narrow lead around the next marker and into the critical upwind third leg.
The Americans split the course and engaged in a tacking duel that ended with the defending champion seizing a lead that grew all the way to the finish.
The dramatic win culminated an epic rally by the Americans, who battled back from seven points down while the Kiwis were poised on match point.
“Hollywood would have said this is not possible; it’s an unbelievable script,’’ regatta director Iain Murray said of the riveting drama played out on the Bay.
The Kiwis struggled for seven days on match point, with victory staved off by Oracle and fickle winds that caused races to be postponed or abandoned.
“It is obviously very hard to fathom,’’ said New Zealand skipper Dean Barker.
“We didn’t get the last one we needed to take it back to New Zealand. It is hard to swallow.’’
Adding to New Zealand’s frustration, it had solid leads races that were abandoned, either because of too much wind or too little.
“I don’t know what went wrong,’’ said New Zealand team chief executive Grant Dalton.
“We weren’t quick enough in the end. My job is to support the guys because they are just really smashed…well the country is really devastated.’’
The regatta stretched to 19 days, the longest in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup.
Wednesday’s finale capped an eventful competition which saw AC72 catamarans dueling with daring high-speed tacks in weeks of dramatic on-water theater.
The move by Ellison to use hightech catamarans with towering main sails was the subject of safety concerns before the regatta.
“There was a lot of criticism about these boats,’’ Ellison said. “I felt I should keep my mouth shut and let the boats and the sailors demonstrate whether the vision was right or wrong.
“It was the most beautiful regatta I’ve ever seen.’’
Holding onto the Cup lets Ellison dictate where the next regatta will play out. He said they already had a challenger of record for the 35th America’s Cup and would soon reveal who it is.
“I’d love to come back to San Francisco; I have a house here,’’ Ellison said. “But, we are going to sit down and talk to the officials in San Francisco to see if it is possible to come back.’’
The technology industry titan, whose personal fortune is estimated at some $40 billion (30.6 billion euros, 26.3 billion pounds) first took the Cup by beating Swiss catamaran Alinghi three years ago in Valencia, Spain.
Ellison brought the regatta to San Francisco, setting it “inshore’’ on the San Francisco Bay.
Adding to his team’s stunning comeback was the fact that they had to win 11 races while the Kiwis needed to rack up just nine to take the Cup.
The Americans were docked two points after it was discovered that the team made illegal modifications to boats it sailed in the America’s Cup World Series.