Sailing-Skippers bicker as weather delays America's Cup racing

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 20 Fri Sep 20, 2013 2:36pm EDT

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 20 (Reuters) - The skippers of Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA quarreled over wind limits after weather interrupted the America's Cup for a third straight day and threatened the Kiwis' chance of clinching the trophy on Friday.

Oracle Team USA, backed by billionaire Larry Ellison, stayed alive in the regatta on Thursday, winning one race before a second scheduled match was called off due to a strong breeze and outgoing tide on San Francisco Bay. The Kiwis need to win just one more race take the trophy home.

Regatta director Iain Murray told reporters that high wind may again interrupt racing on Friday. Murray said he was confident that at least one of the two scheduled races would go ahead.

A fatal training accident earlier this year prompted the teams to agree to a series of changes including a substantial decrease in the wind limits.

The wind limit rule has now led to five race cancellations since the America's Cup finals began two weeks ago and further postponement could push the event beyond Saturday, the last day organizers had planned racing for.

Following alterations it made to its AC72 catamaran, Oracle is now seen as having a slight advantage over the Kiwi boat in strong winds.

Oracle sent a letter this week to the New Zealand team suggesting the wind limits be increased in order to avoid more delays, a proposal the Kiwis flatly rejected.

When a new wind limit was debated by the teams in May, New Zealand had suggested it be set at 25 knots (29 miles per hour), while Oracle had favored a limit lower than the maximum 23 knots that was eventually agreed upon.

"It just seem a little bit strange that halfway through a series you think that you need to change a wind limit that has been agreed when previously they wanted a much lower one," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker told reporters after Thursday's race.

But Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said both teams' crews have improved their handling of the delicate AC72s so much since the new wind limits were put in place that they are no longer necessary and are only holding up the show.

While 20-plus knot winds are not unusual on the bay and are acceptable, though brisk, for pleasure cruising, they can supercharge the high-performance AC72s capable of sailing at more than twice the speed of the wind.

"Both teams are up for it. The world's best teams are sailing out there, and you've got a beautiful breeze like this in the afternoon - but we have to come ashore," Spithill said.

A cold front was forecast to arrive later on Friday but morning winds were already higher that the 10-15 knot forecast for race time.

The Kiwis dominated matches between the two teams in early races in the America's Cup best-of-17 finals and now holds an eight to two lead.

But Thursday's race suggested the momentum could be shifting once again as Oracle showed the speed, tactics and boat handling it needs to match the polished Kiwi team.

Organizers and the teams agreed to the new wind limits and other safety rules after Sweden's Artemis Racing suffered a disastrous accident in May, when its boat broke apart and capsized, killing British Olympian Andrew "Bart" Simpson.

The limits were lowered from 33 knots (38 mph) maximum before the Artemis tragedy to the current 23 knots. Adjustments are then made for the current, which can lower the effective wind limit when the tide is going out of the bay and raise it when flooding into the bay.

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.

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