By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA scored a desperately needed win in the America's Cup finals on Saturday, chipping away at Emirates Team New Zealand's extensive lead after the Kiwis nearly capsized their yacht.
New Zealand began the eighth match in the best-of-17 Cup finals with a lead over Oracle, but in a maneuver during an upward leg skipper Dean Barker briefly lost control when the boat's hydraulically controlled, 135-foot-tall wing sail got stuck. The AC72 catamaran teetered on one hull for several seconds before dropping back in the water.
That gave Oracle a chance to get out in front and it went on to win the race by 52 seconds, just its second victory in the 17-match series in San Francisco Bay.
"We didn't get the hydraulics and if the wing doesn't tack when the boat does, you're in trouble," Barker said. "Fortunately the boat came up and no collision with the other guys."
Due to rising winds, organizers abandoned a second scheduled race, which New Zealand had been winning.
Aggressive tactics and solidly executed maneuvers have helped the Kiwis dominate racing since the final series of races for the 162-year old trophy began last week. Barring a catastrophic misstep by New Zealand, which its near-capsize easily could have become, experts say Oracle has little chance of catching up.
The Kiwis, backed by the New Zealand government, have scored six victories against Oracle and need only three more to win. The next two races are scheduled for Sunday.
Ellison's Oracle, slapped with a jury-imposed two-race penalty, has won only two races and still needs to win another nine to keep the Cup, which the yachting world refers to as the Auld Mug.
Since the teams began competing a week ago, Oracle has suffered against New Zealand on upwind legs, where it has repeatedly forfeited early leads. The Kiwis have maneuvered Oracle into disadvantaged positions near race-course boundaries and forced Skipper Jimmy Spithill to perform extra maneuvers as the huge catamarans zigzagged across the bay.
But in Saturday's match Oracle had closed distance in the upwind tacking duel, and was close to crossing ahead before the Kiwi mishap.
Oracle on Thursday replaced tactician John Kostecki with British sailing superstar Ben Ainslie, but that change has done little to turn the tide of the team's floundering Cup defense.
"It doesn't mean it can't be turned around, but it would take some sort of brilliant swordsmanship on the part of Oracle, some flash of fire from the heavens," said Kimball Livingston, a competitive sailor and writer at blueplanettimes.com.
Oracle started the regatta two points behind because of an unprecedented jury-imposed punishment for illegally modifying the team's smaller, prototype boats sailed in warm-up races.
Though Oracle flies the American flag, substituting Ainslie for Kostecki left only one U.S. sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby. All but two of the Kiwi sailors hail from New Zealand.
The international jury that punished Oracle in the biggest cheating scandal in Cup history also expelled Kostecki's brother-in-law, first-choice Oracle wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder for making illegal boat alterations.
When Ellison's team won the America's Cup in 2010, it gained the right to set the rules and chose windy San Francisco Bay for this year's competition.
Oracle also came up with the AC72 yachts, which can hydrofoil across the waves at 50 miles per hour. In May it became tragically clear how dangerous the twin-hulled yachts were, when a sailor was killed in the capsize of the AC72 sailed by Artemis Racing.
In response to that accident, organizers created additional rules, including the more conservative wind limits that affected Saturday's racing, in order to make the AC72s safer.
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.
(Editing by Alden Bentley)
(This story was refiled yo change next race day to Sunday in the seventh paragarph)
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