Less than a week ago, it looked like the America's Cup — yachting's oldest and most prestigious trophy — would sail back to New Zealand after a near blowout of the U.S. defenders, who are sponsored by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.
But since Wednesday, Emirates Team New Zealand has been stalled at match-point, while Oracle Team USA, which had looked thoroughly out-sailed by the Kiwi boat, methodically clawed its way back from the brink.
They were helped along somewhat by the vagaries of the wind off San Francisco — it's been alternately too light or too strong. On Friday in a light-air race, New Zealand crossed the line ahead of USA, but it took them just over 40 minutes, which the race rules said was too long. So the result was thrown out and the defenders lived to sail again.
Of the races since then that have counted, Oracle Team USA has managed to win every one, keeping hope alive that it can hold onto the Auld Mug, as the 162-year-old trophy is known.
The Oracle comeback has been punctuated by delays caused by wind deemed too strong for the delicate 72-foot catamarans. The boats sport dual hulls lifted out of the water by foils and hard wings instead of traditional cloth mainsails, allowing them to reach breathtaking speeds but also making them more vulnerable to capsizing or going end-over-end than were the traditional America's Cup monohulls.
In the run-up to the competition, a sailor was killed in a capsize in a boat representing Sweden, and during Race 8 of the current championship series, the New Zealand boat nearly capsized — a mistake that allowed USA to sail past for a win.
USA began the series the equivalent of two races in the hole, after a cheating scandal in the warmup series. The San Jose Mercury News says it occurred when "a handful of Oracle members hid bags of lead pellets in the forward posts of their smaller 45-foot catamarans, not the 72-foot catamarans that are being raced during this summer's America's Cup regatta that started with the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series in July."
By way of background, Reuters says:
"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."
Update At 6:30 p.m. ET:
Oracle Team USA wins Race 16, bringing them another point closer to matching New Zealand. So far, each team has won eight races, but USA still trails 8 to 6 because of the points they were docked for cheating.
In a news conference on Monday, James Spithill, the Australian yachtsman who skippers the U.S. boat, was asked what's changed since last week losing streak.
"Winning races," he replied, adding: "Sometimes when the hill gets that steep, it really motivates the other team — and that's us."