America’s Cup qualifiers off to smashing start in Bermuda

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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.

Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

Racing in 36th America’s Cup cleared to begin next week

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Racing in the 36th match for sailing’s America Cup between defender Team New Zealand and Italian challenger Luna Rossa will begin next Wednesday after the relaxation of COVID-19 lockdown regulations in host city Auckland.

The Cup Match was due to begin Saturday but was pushed back to Wednesday when Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, moved to alert level 3 after a small community outbreak.

The outbreak is now thought contained and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced Auckland will move to alert level 2 from Sunday. That will allow racing to take place in the best-of-13 race Match, albeit without crowds at the Cup village or fan zones ashore.

Two races will be sailed on Wednesday with an off-day Thursday. Racing will continue on the next four days — March 12 to 15 — and continue each day afterwards until one team has won seven races.

Auckland COVID outbreak forces America’s Cup postponement

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The first weekend of sailing in the America’s Cup has been postponed after new COVID-19 cases were reported in Auckland. It is now not likely to begin until March 10.

Auckland was placed in limited lockdown for seven days from 6 a.m. Sunday with travel restrictions into and out of New Zealand’s largest city, strict limits on public gatherings, and a ban on sports events.

The 36th match for the America’s Cup between Team New Zealand and Italy’s Luna Rossa was due to begin next Saturday. America’s Cup Events chairwoman Tina Symmans said Sunday the decision had been made early to give participants “some certainty in planning.

The alert level changes were announced late Saturday after two new coronavirus cases were located in the community which could not directly be linked to earlier cases. Auckland recently returned to level 1 after a small community cluster of infections.

“ACE has always said that it wishes to hold as much of the racing under level 1 restrictions as possible,” Symmans said. “But to be prudent, ACE will apply for an exemption to race under Level 3 restrictions so as to keep as many options open as possible.

“However, racing will not occur before at least Wednesday, March 10. We need to understand all likely scenarios so that an updated racing schedule can be put in place whilst also ensuring the regulatory requirements are met.”

Races in the America’s Cup challenger series took place this month without crowds when Auckland was at level 2. A government exemption would be needed and strict protocols would have to be in place for racing to take place at level 3.