SAN FRANCISCO — Skipper Jimmy Spithill and his mates aboard Oracle Team USA are on the brink of finishing one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
An America’s Cup that had the look of an embarrassing loss for software tycoon Larry Ellison’s American syndicate comes down to a winner-take-all race today: Two 72-foot, space-age catamarans are set to make a final, adrenaline-fueled sprint around San Francisco Bay, on a five-leg course framed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
It’ll be Spithill and Oracle Team USA, on an almost unfathomable seven-race winning streak, against Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand, who have been marooned on match point for a week and could suffer one of the most ignominious losses ever.
Weather-permitting, Race 19 is scheduled to start at 1:15 p.m..
“It’s not over. That’s the key point here is, we’ve got to finish it off,” said Spithill, a 34-year-old Australian who lives in San Diego with his American wife and their two young sons.
The finale for the oldest trophy in international sports was set up Tuesday when Oracle came through a wild start with two collisions to win Race 17, and then sped past the Kiwis after they made a tactical error to give up the lead in Race 18 in strong wind.
All but defeated a week ago, Oracle Team USA tied the faltering Kiwis 8-8 on the scoreboard by winning its 10th race overall. Oracle was docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas and Dirk de Ridder, who trimmed the 131-foot wing sail, was disqualified.
If it hadn’t been hit with the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup, Oracle Team USA’s sailors would be hoisting the Auld Mug in victory and spraying each other with champagne.
Oracle has gotten faster as it’s made changes to its black cat every night in its big boatshed on Pier 80 and has steadily learned to sail it better under the watchful eye of team CEO Russell Coutts, a four-time America’s Cup winner.
But there’s a bigger reason Oracle is still alive.
“Never giving up,” Spithill said.
Spithill has been almost defiant in leading his well-funded, deep team after it was penalized just four days before the sailing began.
“I really feel it’s because we’ve been through such hard times in this campaign that it’s prepared us for this situation,” Spithill said. “I spoke yesterday a lot about the capsize and stuff like that and what went on before this regatta. This team has just been through so much and some incredibly difficult times.”
Those were key moments, we needed those key moments to prepare us as a team.”