By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO, September 12 (Reuters) - British sailing superstar Ben Ainslie, knighted for his racing success on the water, will try to rescue Oracle Team USA's floundering America's Cup campaign on Thursday, taking over as the top decision-maker on its high-speed yacht in two planned matches against Emirates Team New Zealand.
The most successful Olympic sailor of all time, Ainslie will sail as the tactician aboard the 72-foot catamaran in place of American John Kostecki. Earlier this week a tactical blunder by Kostecki cost Oracle a lead, allowed the Kiwis to cruise into a commanding fourth victory, and prompted the American team to call for an unusual time-out.
"It's clear we need to improve performance, and with that comes changes," Kostecki, 49, said. "I'll fill whatever role is best to help us win."
Government-backed Team New Zealand needs to win five more races to take the 162-year-old trophy back to its sailing-crazed island nation, while software mogul Larry Ellison's Oracle team still needs to win 10 races to hold onto the Cup. 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.
"I'm happy to step up and do what's best for the team," Ainslie said in a prepared statement. The 36-year-old sailor has been at the helm of Oracle's second yacht during training matches.
Though Oracle flies the American flag, substituting Ainslie for Kostecki leaves only one U.S. sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby. All but two of the Kiwi sailors hail from New Zealand.
Oracle's devastating loss on Tuesday prompted the team to play its so-called postponement card and cancel a second race of the day so it could regroup. The only crew change was the promotion of Ainslie - a record five-time Olympic medalist knighted by the Princess Royal at Buckingham Palace in March.
A supreme tactician, Ainslie is known for bouncing back from bad races. His work as a sparring partner for Team New Zealand's skipper Dean Barker in Valencia, Spain, in 2007 could help him in the races for the America's Cup trophy. Ainslie has set winning the "Auld Mug," as the Cup is called, as his primary goal.
"I think this Cup is still winnable for Oracle," he said in an interview earlier this week with British broadcaster Sky Sports. "We're obviously in a very difficult situation.
"If we can change the momentum of this series, then anything's possible."
Ainslie made his mark in his 1996 Olympic debut earning a silver in the Laser dinghy class. That made him, at 19, the Britain's youngest Olympic sailing medalist.
Four years later, in Sydney, he won gold, and did so again in Athens in 2004. He took his fourth gold and fifth Olympic medal in London last year.
Oracle was winning the race against powerhouse New Zealand on Tuesday when it tried to do something that has never before been done -- to lift its foils out of the water while tacking. The team bungled the maneuver, almost stopped dead and gave up an eight-second lead.
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.
Kostecki grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay and was hired as Oracle's tactician at least in part for his insider knowledge.
Ellison won the world's oldest sporting trophy in Valencia in 2010 and with it the right to choose his home San Francisco Bay waters as the venue and the fragile and hard-to-handle twin-hulled yachts with 13-story rigid wing sails as the vessels.
Sailors have criticized the Oracle chief executive's decisions, particularly after British Olympic gold medalist Andrew "Bart" Simpson was killed when the AC72 of Sweden's Artemis Racing capsized during a May practice exercise.
Ainslie grew up sailing with and against Simpson in British youth squads. Losing Simpson was crushing for Ainslie. He delivered a tribute at his friend's funeral.