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America’s Cup thrills and spills

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With thousands of spectators ringing the bay and the Blue Angels performing overhead, a fleet of state-of-the-art catamarans put on just as exciting a show on the bay last month during the second round of the America’s Cup World Series 2012-2013. In the end, Oracle Team USA Spithill swept the match and fleet racing championships with stunning come-from-behind victories.

Spectators hoping to see some carnage on the water during ACWS races got an eyeful on Saturday, Oct. 2, when Jimmy Spithill pitch-poled Oracle’s No. 4 boat while rounding the first mark in the first fleet race of the day. The AC45 catamaran flipped just offshore and directly in front of the grandstands, nearly landing on top of Team Artemis and its skipper, Terry Hutchinson. Fortunately, no one was injured, as most of the Oracle crew managed to cling to the boat, some dangling 25 feet above the water. The boat sustained minor damage, but quick repairs by the Oracle crew had it ready in time for the next fleet race that same afternoon, where Spithill and his team rallied to a second place finish.

But Oracle Team USA’s work wasn’t done yet, as the one-on-one match race final pitted Team Spithill against Emirates Team New Zealand (with skipper Dean Barker) in what is becoming one of the biggest America’s Cup rivalries. Barker had dominated the starts throughout the series, but in the match race final, Spithill narrowly froze out Barker at the start to take a big lead. Team Oracle then cruised to victory in the match race championship.

Super Sunday’s fleet race final was squeezed between a Fleet Week air show and the Blue Angels’ big finale. The home team was struggling, with Oracle Team USA Coutts well back in eighth place in the standings and, despite capsizing on Sunday, Oracle Team USA Spithill tied for fourth. Ben Ainslie had a solid grip on first place, with Team Artemis Hutchinson in second and Emirates Team New Zealand close behind in third. At the start of the race, Spithill got caught behind the pack and was dead last around the first mark, while Coutts was in second after a good start. But Spithill had local knowledge on his side with tactician John Kostecki on board, and the team raced brilliantly, slowly moving up to take the lead just before the fifth mark, beating Coutts at the finish line by 16 seconds. The finish moved Coutts up the board to fifth place, and managed to tie Spithill with BAR Ben Ainslie for first. The winner of the last race breaks the tie, so Oracle USA Spithill earned the fleet
race championship.

Having recently launched their massive AC72 catamaran in preparation for the defense of the Cup, Team Oracle’s resiliency will be tested again. On Oct. 16, Spithill and company learned just what the limits of their new catamaran were as they capsized just off Fort Mason. Though this seemed to happen almost in slow motion compared to the AC45 flip weeks before, the sheer size difference becomes apparent when you realize that the back of the boat goes from sea level to 70 feet in the air – the height of a six-story building – in under 10 seconds! Before they were able to get the boat onto its side to be towed to shore, a strong ebb tide swept the boat and salvage operation out through the Golden Gate. After nearly 18 hours, they finally had the boat back at Pier 80, but not before the boat had sustained severe damage. Luckily, no crewmembers were hurt.

The team is now looking at nearly four months of repair time, which also means vital training time lost. “We’ve been in tough situations before and had to face a lot of adversity in the past, and as a team, we’ve gotten through it,” said Jimmy Spithill. “So that gives all of us confidence, and I am still confident we can go out there and defend as the United States team.”

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