Sailing-Oracle in imminent danger of losing America's Cup to New Zealand

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 14 Sat Sep 14, 2013 11:00am EDT

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA is in imminent danger of relinquishing the 34th America's Cup this weekend to the formidable Emirates Team New Zealand.

Aggressive tactics and near-perfect maneuvers have helped the Kiwis dominate racing on San Francisco Bay since the final series of 17 match races for the 162-year old trophy began last week. Barring a catastrophic misstep by Dean Barker, skipper of New Zealand's high-tech 72-foot catamaran, experts say Oracle has little chance of catching up.

The Kiwis, backed by the New Zealand government, have scored six victories against Oracle and need only three more to win.

Two races are scheduled for Saturday and another two for Sunday. If Oracle does not turn things around, the Cup could be headed to New Zealand after Sunday's first race.

Ellison's Oracle, slapped with a jury-imposed two-race penalty, has won only one race and still needs to win another 10 to keep the Cup, which the yachting world refers to as the Auld Mug.

Since the teams began races last Saturday, Oracle has suffered against New Zealand on upwind legs, where it has repeatedly forfeited early leads. The Kiwis have maneuvered Oracle into disadvantaged positions near race-course boundaries and forced Skipper Jimmy Spithill to perform extra maneuvers as the huge catamarans zigzagged across the bay.

Oracle on Thursday replaced tactician John Kostecki with British sailing superstar Ben Ainslie, but that change failed to turn the tide of the team's floundering Cup defense.

"It doesn't mean it can't be turned around, but it would take some sort of brilliant swordsmanship on the part of Oracle, some flash of fire from the heavens," said Kimball Livingston, a competitive sailor and writer at blueplanettimes.com.

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.

Though Oracle flies the American flag, substituting Ainslie for Kostecki left only one U.S. sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby. All but two of the Kiwi sailors hail from New Zealand.

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.

When Ellison's team won the America's Cup in 2010, it gained the right to set the rules and chose windy San Francisco Bay for this year's competition.

Oracle also came up with the AC72 yachts, which can hydrofoil across the waves at 50 miles per hour. In May it became tragically clear how dangerous the twin-hulled yachts were, when a sailor was killed in the capsize of the AC72 sailed by Artemis Racing.

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.

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