By Jonathan Weber
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA prevailed in a dramatic winner-take-all showdown with Emirates Team New Zealand on Wednesday to win the 34th America's Cup, completing a stirring comeback that helped make the once-troubled event among the most exciting in sailing history.
For Oracle and its hard-charging skipper, Australian Jimmy Spithill, the win was an extraordinary sporting triumph, one that saw the team climb back from a seemingly insurmountable 8-1 deficit in the best-of-17 series to keep the trophy it won three years ago.
The thrilling final races were also a ringing vindication of Oracle owner Larry Ellison's controversial decision to transform a once-staid yachting event into a TV-friendly, extreme-sports spectacle featuring huge high-speed catamarans that might draw a new generation of enthusiasts to sailing.
Emirates Team New Zealand, a plucky challenger that lacked a billionaire sponsor but nonetheless sailed to the brink of Cup victory, must now endure the ignominy of having let the prize slip from its grasp after a grueling two-year campaign of boat development and training that unfolded almost exactly as planned until the final days.
Oracle dominated the last race, showcasing the dramatic improvement in boat speed on the upwind leg of the race that began to emerge a week ago. Oracle seemed to find an extra gear after losing most of the early races, and even overcame a pre-match penalty that required it win 11 races on the water.
"On your own you're nothing, but with a team like this around you, they can make you look great," Spithill said after the race.
Just a week ago, New Zealand fans had all but begun celebrating what seemed like an inevitable sporting and economic windfall for the longtime international sailing power, which supported the team with about $30 million in government funds in the hopes of bringing the trophy - and attendant tourism and publicity - back home.
But on Wednesday it was Ellison who was celebrating, joining the crew on the boat for a champagne shower in the moments after the finish.
Fans who flocked to the San Francisco bayfront by the tens of thousands for the final races were treated to a little bit of everything: tense on-the-water duels, a near-capsize, winds that were alternately too light and too strong, and even a whale that threatened to disrupt racing.
Until just a few weeks ago, the summer-long series of America's Cup events looked like a monumental bust. A British Olympic champion sailing for the Swedish team was killed in a training accident in May, calling the safety of the boats into question and forcing contentious rule changes.
New Zealand completely dominated the Louis Vuitton challenger series, which featured only three competitors and saw some "races" with only one boat charging around the course. A cheating scandal erupted, with Oracle ultimately being docked two races and losing a key crew member as punishment for illegal boat modifications in a preliminary series.
In San Francisco, many locals bristled at city support for what has often been derided as a rich man's yacht race.
Controversies aside, Oracle seemed to have a competitive edge early on, with the home-team advantage and enough money to hire top sailors and build two equally matched boats to train against one another. Its team was distinctly international, with New Zealander Russel Coutts, who led the Kiwis to Cup victory in 1995 and 2000, serving as CEO and Spithill as the skipper.
Only one American was among the Oracle crew at the finish.
When only three challengers proved willing to take on the cost and complexity of the 72-foot carbon fiber yachts, Oracle's chances looked even better - though it faced criticism that the dearth of competitors had made hosting the event a bad financial deal for San Francisco.
But the Kiwis, led by a 56-year-old managing director, Grant Dalton, who doubled as a workhorse on-board "grinder" during races, proved ingenious in developing their boat, particularly in pioneering the use of hydrofoils that lift both hulls almost entirely of the water to reduce drag.
Skipper Dean Barker steered nearly flawless races through most of the competition as New Zealand first crushed the Italian team, Luna Rossa, in the challenger series, and then dominated Oracle in the early races of the Cup finals.
But now the America's Cup, with its rich history of dueling tycoons, gamesmanship and cutting-edge boat technology, appears firmly headed in Ellison's innovative direction. Not since Australia ended the United States' 132-year-long grip on the oldest trophy in sports in 1983 has the competition taken such a sharp turn.
(Editing by Alden Bentley)