By Jonathan Weber
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 25 (Reuters) - The 34th America's Cup, which until a few weeks ago had looked like an economic and sporting fiasco, is set to end Wednesday with a high-speed, half hour, winner-take-all sailboat race between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand.
The unlikely climax comes after the Kiwi team opened up a seemingly insurmountable 8-1 lead in the final best-of-17 match-race series, then crumbled as Oracle won seven in a row to stand on the brink of one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
"The exciting thing for me is seeing how this team has gelled together," said Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill after winning both races on Tuesday to tie things up with New Zealand. "Sometimes you need to face that barrel of the gun to come together. You can get wobbly in the knees or you can look into the barrel. Every day we've managed to step it up more."
The thrilling on-the-water action over the past two weeks, with 72-foot catamarans flying across San Francisco Bay at speeds reaching 50 miles-per-hour, has largely vindicated the controversial decision to use big, high-tech boats in the competition for the oldest trophy in sports.
Never has the America's Cup lasted so long or produced so many dramatic twists and turns, ranging from a fatal training accident that once threatened to scupper the competition altogether to a cheating scandal that forced Oracle to begin the final series two races in the hole. Were it not for the penalty, Oracle would have clinched the Cup on Tuesday.
A week ago, New Zealand fans had all but begun celebrating what seemed like an inevitable sporting and economic triumph for the sailing-crazed nation, 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.
Oracle and its owner, Larry Ellison, were facing a humiliating defeat in a competition that it had radically reshaped after winning the Cup in 2010. Ellison and his team led by New Zealander Russell Coutts, who was responsible for the Kiwi's Cup victories in 1995 and 2000, developed a new type of sailing event featuring the super-fast boats, state-of-the-art television coverage and scenic viewing areas along San Francisco Bay, all aimed at making sailing appealing to a wide audience.
With the home-team advantage and enough money to hire top sailors and build two equally matched boats to train against one another, Oracle was the presumptive favorite from the start. 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 onboard "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 Louis Vuitton challenger series, and then dominated Oracle in the early races of the Cup finals.
"We're going to prepare as we have been and we have confidence we can win this," Barker said late Tuesday. "No one's slightly head down or lacking in confidence. We know if we put the pieces together we'll be successful."
Oracle started two races behind as a punishment for illegal boat modifications in a preliminary regatta and its first-string wing trimmer was suspended for his involvement in that incident.
But to the astonishment of veteran America's Cup observers, Oracle turned the tables. It replaced its tactician with Olympic champion Ben Ainslie, made changes to its boat that gave it more upwind speed and showed vastly improved tacking and teamwork as the racing progressed.
Event organizers barely contained their glee as the competition transformed from a display of bumbling that might keep yachting from becoming a major spectator sport into a tense, see-saw competition that showcased sailing's athleticism, tactical judgments and innovative design.
More then one million spectators have passed through the two America's Cup compounds on the waterfront.
Fans watching from the shore - or following state-of-the-art television coverage - have been treated to a little bit of everything: tense on-the-water duels, a near-capsize, repeated delays due to wind conditions, and even a whale that threatened to disrupt racing.
The TV coverage has itself been a triumph. Three helicopters and two speedboats equipped with motion-stabilizing equipment and have delivered gripping pictures, enhanced by sophisticated video graphics that helped make sense of it all for millions of viewers around the world. Each AC72 was equipped with multiple waterproof cameras and microphones to capture the action of the crew and the rush and spray of seawater.
For the city of San Francisco, where many residents have questioned the value of subsidizing what some deride as a rich man's yacht race, the exciting regatta may also shift the dynamics.
There's no guarantee that Ellison would choose to host the event in San Francisco again should his team complete its comeback win. But if he does, he may get a warmer welcome.