SAILING-Winning Kiwis on cusp of America's Cup showdown with Oracle

SAN FRANCISCO Sat Aug 24, 2013 7:54pm EDT

SAN FRANCISCO Aug 24 (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand outsailed Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge on the Louis Vuitton Cup race course on Saturday, which put the Kiwis just one win away from a match up against Oracle Team USA in the finals of the 34th America's Cup next month.

The victory gave heavily favored New Zealand a 6-1 lead over Italy in the best-of-13 challenger selection series. The champion will pit their 72-foot America's Cup catamaran against a boat and crew backed by American software mogul Larry Ellison, winner of the 2010 America's Cup in Valencia, Spain.

As defender, Ellison chose to host the event inside San Francisco Bay on the fastest, most advanced sailboats ever designed, so the Cup would draw spectators. Races have normally been held too far out to sea for land-based viewing.

But the AC72s are fragile and dangerous, even when expertly sailed by the world's top yachtsmen. One crew member died when Sweden's challenger Artemis capsized in May.

Strong winds, combined with an incoming tide, prompted race officials to postpone a second race scheduled for Saturday. Another two races are set for Sunday, when the forecast predicts calmer conditions.

Still, sailing fans believe another wind delay is a greater threat to New Zealand clinching the series this weekend than the Italian's are.

Prada fashion tycoon Patrizio Bertelli's Luna Rossa has won one of 11 races against government-bankrolled New Zealand in this year's competition. The Italians crossed the finish line ahead only after a dead battery disabled the Kiwi's AC72.

On Saturday, Luna Rossa trailed 1 minute and 58 seconds behind New Zealand in the 10.25-nautical-mile race in choppy wave conditions and winds that gusted up to 25 miles an hour.

With its powerful 13-story tall rigid wing sail, New Zealand's hydrofoiling multihull reached a speed of 54 miles an hour as it lifted out of the water on its blade-like dagger board and rudders. That is nine miles an hour faster than the automobile speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge, the backdrop for the races. Italy's yacht topped out at 50 miles an hour.

"You can't help but get a buzz from it," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said of the unprecedented speed. "These boats are just unbelievably exciting."

After losing a race on Friday, Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena and helmsman Chris Draper of Luna Rossa looked defeated.

"There's nothing we can do," Sirena said. "They have more horsepower."

Luna Rossa joined the competition late and, in an unusual bit of collaboration, bought the boat design from New Zealand. But the Kiwis built a second boat, which observers, including the Luna Rossa crew, see as superior.

Draper said that though much has been made about his need to get his sailboat in a better starting spot, New Zealand is better positioned to win.

"The cold reality is they're going to sail past us whether they're to windward or leeward," he said.

"It's pretty frustrating. It's not the mistakes we make on the course now, but the mistakes we made months ago."

The best-of-17 America's Cup match races are set to begin on September 7.

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