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By Jonathan Weber and Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA again staved off elimination in the America's Cup on Friday, catching a huge break when the day's first race was abandoned for exceeding the time limit with Emirates Team New Zealand far ahead, and then coming back to win a second race in stronger breezes.
Friday's competition featured drastically different conditions than previous matches, with very light winds and fog wafting in through the Golden Gate.
In the first race, Oracle won the start as the two boats appeared to drift to the first mark, but New Zealand made a better maneuver to capture what little wind there was and quickly opened up a huge lead. But it was all for naught as the time limit wound down, and the race was called with New Zealand just a few hundred yards from the finish line.
New Zealand had the jump in the second race, winning a thrilling start that saw the two boats maneuver within feet of one another.
Oracle overtook them on the downwind leg, taking better advantage of the erratic wind conditions. New Zealand was penalized for forcing Oracle to alter its course as the two boats converged at high speed and the U.S. team then capitalized on a Kiwi tactical error as the boats turned upwind.
"It was a frustrating day. It was a really solid first race," said New Zealand skipper Dean Barker. "It's disappointing to be that close but so far away."
New Zealand now leads the best-of-17 series 8-3, with two more races scheduled for Saturday.
Until Friday the regatta had been dogged by winds that often exceeded the limits set by the organizers, which were lowered for safety reasons after a fatal training accident in May. The wind limit rule had led to five race cancellations since the America's Cup finals began two weeks ago, and the two teams bickered about raising the limit after Thursday's postponement.
Friday's light air created a different set of problems as the Kiwis failed to reach the finish line within the allotted 40 minutes.
At the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club in Wellington, the crowd collapsed into a collective groan when time was called. Fans spent much of the race glancing down at their watches while watching the race on video screens, having realized early on that New Zealand was racing more against the clock than Oracle.
The Kiwis dominated the early matches of the finals series and appeared poised to easily reclaim the Cup they lost in 2003. But Oracle has succeeded in shifting the momentum with boat changes and improved tacking, and the two teams now appear remarkably even.
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.