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SAN FRANCISCO, July 13 (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand and Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge match up their high-tech sailboats on San Francisco Bay on Saturday in the first real race of the 34th America's Cup, which in recent days looked like it might never come off.
True competition has been held up by a series of mishaps, including the tragic death of one sailor and a dispute over boat design that threatened to derail the entire event before being resolved by an America's Cup jury this week.
Following the resolution on Thursday of the rules controversy and after the fatal accident in May that left Sweden's challenger Artemis unable to sail, the race will be the first in the Luis Vuitton Cup, which officially started a week ago but has yet to see two boats compete.
Team New Zealand has logged more hours than Luna Rossa sailing the carbon-fiber AC72 catamarans, which have been criticized as dangerous and too unstable for the strong winds and rip currents in San Francisco Bay.
"I'm pretty sure they're the strongest team on the water right now, so it's going to be for us to beat them," Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena said on Thursday.
The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup, which runs through August, will then challenge software mogul Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA, which won the America's Cup in 2010 and is defending it this time.
The Louis Vuitton Cup officially got under way last Sunday, but Luna Rossa, backed by Prada fashion mogul Patrizio Bertelli, refused to sail while an international jury deliberated in a dispute over the design rules that organizers had imposed to improve the safety of the AC72s, which can lift out of the water on thin hydrofoils and reach speeds near 50 miles per hour (40 kph).
That left New Zealand no choice but to sail the race course alone to win a point in the round robin series of matches. That bizarre spectacle was repeated by New Zealand on Tuesday and by Luna Rossa on Thursday to get credit for a race that Artemis, still working on a new boat, forfeited.
On Thursday, the jury threw out changes to the design rules, which affected rudder configurations and which Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa both opposed on the ground they gave un unfair advantage to Oracle.
Artemis, the Challenger of Record in the America's Cup, is readying a new AC72 after a capsize that killed crew member Andrew Simpson, an Olympic sailing champion from Britain, during a practice sail on San Francisco Bay.
Artemis last week warned that it would not be able to participate in the Cup if the jury were roll back the design rule, and its future in the competition is uncertain.