SAN FRANCISCO — The big black cat almost used up its last life at the start, burying its bows in a wave and falling behind a boatload of Kiwis.
Of course, it was only fitting in this America’s Cup that Oracle Team USA would need to survive near-defeat again.
With one last spectacular push in a winner-take-all finale Wednesday, the United States managed to hang onto the Auld Mug in closing out the longest, fastest and, by far, wildest America’s Cup ever with one of the greatest comebacks in sports.
“I’m going to rank it No. 1. We never gave up,” skipper Jimmy Spithill said.
Spithill steered Oracle’s space-age, 72-foot catamaran to its eighth straight victory, speeding past Dean Barker and Team New Zealand sailing upwind in Race 19 on a San Francisco Bay course bordered by the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Embarcadero.
All but defeated a week ago, the 34-year-old Australian and his international crew twice rallied from seven-point deficits to win 9-8. Owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, Oracle Team USA was docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas and had to win 11 races to keep the trophy.
For eight races, they sailed with no margin for error in a new class of boats that had a learning curve that was almost straight up.
“There’s nothing like going all in,” Spithill said. “I’m so proud of the boys. … They didn’t flinch.”
It could have been over shortly after the start Wednesday just inside the Golden Gate Bridge.
Oracle’s hulking black catamaran — with a giant No. 17 on each hull — buried its twin bows in a wave approaching the first mark and Barker turned his red-and-black cat around the buoy with a 7-second lead.
“We just knew it was going to be a tough race,” Spithill said. “I just have so much confidence in the boys on board and the boat. When you sail these boats, you’re on the edge. You really red-line them the whole way. They keep you on your toes. It’s a very demanding boat but it’s very rewarding at the same time.”
The New Zealanders were game despite being stranded on match point for a week. Spithill and crew still had to sail their best to keep from becoming the third American loser in 30 years.
Oracle narrowed Team New Zealand’s lead to 3 seconds turning onto the third leg, the only time the boats sail into the wind.
New Zealand had the lead the first time the boats crossed on opposite tacks. By the time they crossed again, the American boat — with only one American on its 11-man crew — had the lead.
As Oracle worked to build its lead, tactician Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from Britain, implored his mates by saying, “This is it. This is it. Working your (rears) off.” Ainslie replaced John Kostecki after Oracle lost four of the first five races.
It had to be a gut-wrenching moment in New Zealand — coming so close to winning the oldest trophy in international sports a week ago, only to see Oracle going faster and faster.
Oracle’s shore team had made changes to the black cat every night in its big boatshed on Pier 80 to make its cat a speed freak going upwind. While the upwind leg was known earlier for the “Kiwi stretch,” where Team New Zealand sailed ahead, Oracle found another gear going windward in the final eight races.
“We started this regatta slower than the other team but we ended this regatta faster,” Spithill said. “That was an incredible team effort. That’s really what won us the Cup.”
Ellison praised his entire team for finding the right mode for the boat.
“The guys finally cracked the code, finally figured out what we had to do,” the billionaire said.
“We knew we had a fight on our hands,” Barker said. “It’s really frustrating. The gains that they made were just phenomenal. They did just an amazing job of sorting out their boat. It’s a good thing for us they didn’t do it earlier. I am incredibly proud of our team and what we achieved. But we didn’t get that last one we needed to take the cup back to New Zealand. It’s just very hard to swallow.”
As Spithill rounded the third mark onto the downwind fourth leg, his catamaran sprang onto its hydrofoils at 35 mph, its hulls completely out of the water, and headed for history. A final sprint across the wind on the reaching fifth leg resulted in a 44-second victory.
There were hugs and handshakes on the boat crewed by four Australians, two Kiwis, and one sailor each from the United States, Britain, Italy, Holland and Antigua.
Ellison, who has spent an estimated $500 million the last 11 years in pursuing, winning and now defending the silver trophy, hopped on board and was sprayed with champagne by the celebrating crew.
Things weren’t always so jubilant, of course, but Spithill refused to let his team fold after the penalties were announced four days before racing started.
How big was this win?
In sailing terms, it was the equivalent of the Boston Red Sox sweeping the final four games of the 2004 ALCS over the New York Yankees, the only 3-0 comeback in major league history. It’s also comparable to the Philadelphia Flyers overcoming a 0-3 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the 2010 NHL playoffs.
As stirring of a comeback as it was for Spithill and his mates, it was a staggering loss for Team New Zealand. Barker, 41, was looking for redemption after losing the America’s Cup to Alinghi of Switzerland in 2003 and then steering the losing boat in 2007, also against Alinghi.
“For me, my job is to support the guys because they’re pretty smashed,” said Grant Dalton, the managing director of Team New Zealand who also is one of the grinders on the boat. “They’re feeling it pretty bad. … The country is really devastated.”
Team New Zealand was funded in part by its government and its future is uncertain.
Barker was gracious in defeat.
“To Oracle, amazing. We thought a couple of weeks ago that it was sort of in our favor, and the way they improved and turned things around is just incredible. It was unbelievable,” he said.
“It’s always tough when it gets to a winner-take-all because it’s such a great battle that it almost seems to be a crime that there has to be a winner and a loser,” Spithill said. “Those guys aren’t losers, they’re champions. I’ve got full respect for those guys.”
This was the first time the America’s Cup was raced inshore and San Francisco Bay provided a breathtaking racecourse.
The catamarans were the vision of Ellison and his sailing team CEO, Russell Coutts, who is now a five-time America’s Cup winner.
Powered by a 131-foot wing sail, the cats have hit 50 mph, faster than the speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ellison said it’s too early to say whether the next America’s Cup will be in San Francisco. He joked that it might be around Lanai. Ellison bought 98 percent of the Hawaiian island in 2012.
Regardless, “This regatta has changed sailing forever,” Ellison said.