The America’s Cup qualifiers got off to a smashing start Saturday on Bermuda’s Great Sound.
It was a good day for two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA and a bad one for Sir Ben Ainslie of Britain.
Moments after Oracle Team USA came from behind to beat Emirates Team New Zealand in a thrilling rematch between the 2013 finalists, Ainslie, the skipper of Land Rover BAR, crashed his 50-foot foiling catamaran into SoftBank Team Japan during the prestart of the day’s sixth and final race.
Crewmen on SoftBank Team Japan had to leap clear of Ainslie’s port hull as it crashed onto their starboard hull. The collision opened a hole in the bottom of the British boat’s carbon fiber hull and caused part of it to delaminate.
Ainslie was penalized and SoftBank Team Japan, skippered by former Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, sailed off to a 48-second win.
The British shore crew has less than 24 hours to repair the boat before Sunday’s races, when Land Rover BAR faces Oracle and Team New Zealand.
Oracle went 2-0 while Land Rover BAR, Team New Zealand, Artemis Racing of Sweden and SoftBank Team Japan all went 1-1. Groupama Team France was routed in its two races.
It was the third collision this spring for Ainslie, who sailed with Oracle in 2013 and is the most decorated sailor in Olympic history. He hit the dock while returning from a practice session on March 22 and then ran into the back of Emirates Team New Zealand during a practice race on May 16, causing significant damage that took the Kiwis three days to repair.
The qualifiers started the same way the 2013 America’s Cup ended, with Oracle rallying to beat Team New Zealand. Four years ago, Team New Zealand reached match point against Oracle on San Francisco Bay before the American team, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, won eight straight races to cap one of the greatest comebacks in sports.
On Saturday, there were two lead changes. Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill caught the Kiwis, now helmed by Olympic gold and silver medalist Peter Burling, as the catamarans rounded the mark onto the sixth of seven legs and pulled away to win by six seconds.
“It’s good to get back out there against them,” said Spithill, an Australian. “Both boats are very competitive and it really came down to the sailing side. There were a couple of tactical, match-race situations that decided that race. That’s a good sign.”
This is the first time the defender has sailed against challengers in the preliminaries. Oracle and the five challengers will compete in two round robins, which will eliminate one challenger. Oracle will then train on its own while the challengers sail their semifinals and finals. The winner will meet Oracle in the first-to-seven America’s Cup match starting June 17.
Oracle pulled into a 3-3 tie atop the standings with Land Rover BAR, which opened with two bonus points based on preliminary regattas. Oracle came in with one bonus point.
If the winner of the qualifiers is Oracle or a challenger that advances to the match, that team will start the match with a one-point bonus.
Oracle opened Saturday’s racing with a 2:11 rout of Groupama Team France.
The British looked strong in beating Artemis Racing by 11 seconds. Artemis, which looked good in practice races in recent weeks, beat SoftBank Team Japan by 13 seconds. Emirates Team New Zealand routed France by 2:33.
The Kiwis officially debuted their cycling grinding system. Rather than having grinders turn winches with traditional arm power, they installed four stationary bikes on each hull to have the grinders ride.
Oracle also installed a cycling grinding station behind the wheel that tactician Tom Slingsby occasionally rode.
The opening of the regatta was delayed a day due to strong winds, leading to a crowded weekend schedule. Instead of four races each day Saturday and Sunday, there will be six each day.
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