By BERNIE WILSON, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The longest America's Cup in history will come down to two 72-foot, space-age catamarans making a final, dramatic sprint around San Francisco Bay, on a five-leg course framed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill and defending champion Oracle Team USA saw to that by extending their almost unimaginable winning streak to seven on Tuesday to force a winner-take-all finale against Emirates Team New Zealand.
Oracle came through a wild start with two collisions to win Race 17, and then sped past the Kiwis after they made a tactical error to give up the lead in Race 18 in strong wind.
All but defeated a week ago, Oracle Team USA tied the faltering Kiwis 8-8 on the scoreboard by winning its 10th race overall. Oracle was docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas and Dirk de Ridder, who trimmed the 131-foot wing sail, was disqualified.
If it hadn't been hit with the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of the America's Cup, Oracle Team USA's sailors would be hoisting the oldest trophy in international sports in victory and spraying each other with champagne.
Instead, the epic 19th race is scheduled for Wednesday, weather-permitting, on San Francisco Bay.
Either Oracle will finish one of the greatest comebacks in sports history or Team New Zealand, marooned on match point for the past week, will get the win it needs to claim the Auld Mug for the second time in 18 years and ease the nerves of the 4.5 million residents of the island nation.
Oracle has gotten faster as it's made changes to its black cat every night in its big boatshed on Pier 80 and has steadily learned to sail it better under the watchful eye of team CEO Russell Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner.
But there's a bigger reason Oracle is still alive.
"Never giving up," Spithill said.
The 34-year-old Australian has been almost defiant in leading his well-funded, deep team after it was penalized just four days before the sailing began.
"I really feel it's because we've been through such hard times in this campaign that it's prepared us for this situation," Spithill said. "I spoke yesterday a lot about the capsize and stuff like that and what went on before this regatta. This team has just been through so much and some incredibly difficult times. Those were key moments, we needed those key moments to prepare us as a team."
Oracle's first boat capsized in October and its wing sail was destroyed, costing the team four months of training time until a new one arrived from New Zealand.
Barker, the losing skipper in the 2003 and 2007 America's Cup, looked deflated after the double losses.
"We got beaten today, and that's tough to handle, but sometimes you just have to accept that," he said. "It's frustrating, but we know we can still win this, and we will go out there and give it absolutely everything we can tomorrow."
Spithill may very well have gotten into the heads of Barker and the Kiwi crew on Sept. 12. With Oracle trailing 6 to minus-1, he said: "I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be. They've almost got it in the bag. That's my motivation."
On Tuesday, Spithill said: "It's not over. That's the key point here is, we've got to finish it off."
In terms of drama, this America's Cup rivals the 1983 regatta, when Australia II rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Dennis Conner in seven races to end the New York Yacht Club's 132-year winning streak.
Tuesday's races were so pivotal that software billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns Oracle Team USA, skipped making a keynote speech before 60,000 people at Oracle Open World so he could witness the comeback firsthand from a chase boat on the bay.
Barker dominated Spithill at the start of Race 18 and beat him to the first mark with his 72-foot catamaran, allowing the Kiwis to control the race.
The Kiwis led by 7 seconds rounding the second gate mark before committing the blunder that cost them the lead and, perhaps, the America's Cup.
Team New Zealand tacked too early heading into the first cross going upwind and slowed dramatically as the boats zigzagged toward the Golden Gate Bridge on the only windward leg on the course. The American-backed boat — with only one American on its 11-man crew — went speeding past and built its lead to more than 1,000 yards on the windward fourth leg going past Alcatraz Island.