SAN FRANCISCO — Emirates Team New Zealand is getting closer to pushing the delete button on software tycoon Larry Ellison in the America’s Cup.
On one of the liveliest days of the regatta, Dean Barker and the rest of the Kiwi crew earned a split Sunday with Oracle Team USA to move within two races of yanking the oldest trophy in international sports away from the American-based powerhouse.
The day got revving when Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill posted a tweet that some people found offensive. Spithill later deleted it.
It ended with a race that saw four lead changes, strong winds on San Francisco Bay and a shift in momentum back to the Kiwis.
“I think if you didn’t enjoy today’s racing you should watch another sport,” Barker said.
Team New Zealand, which almost capsized during a 52-second loss Saturday, leads 7-1.
Monday is a lay day. If Team New Zealand sweeps Tuesday’s two races — weather permitting — it will claim the Auld Mug for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron for the second time in 18 years.
Even if it continues to split races, Team New Zealand can essentially run out the clock against Oracle Team USA, which brought the America’s Cup back to the United States in 2010 after a 15-year absence.
“Exactly,” said Barker, who added that there’s “a lot of work to do still.”
Oracle Team USA, owned by Ellison, needs to win eight more races to keep the Cup. It entered the series with a two-point penalty for the biggest cheating scandal in the Cup’s 162-year history.
Oracle might have put some worry into the Kiwis by leading wire-to-wire to win Race 9 by 47 seconds, especially since changes to its catamaran and better crew work has Oracle sailing much better upwind.
It was the first time in this regatta that Oracle won consecutive races and had Ellison flashing a double thumbs-up from a chase boat.
Race 10 was even better, with four lead changes, the final one going to the Kiwis.
“That was a really big point for us, yeah,” Barker said after steering his 72-foot catamaran to a 17-second victory. “We definitely needed it.”
The Kiwis had two big moments in Race 10.
As the boats sped across the starting line in Race 10 toward the reaching first mark, Spithill had the acceleration, but his catamaran came off its hydrofoils at one point, allowing Barker to get the inside position. Barker was able to keep his 72-foot catamaran overlapped with Oracle for a 4-second lead turning onto the downwind second leg.
The boats swapped leads sailing upwind toward the Golden Gate Bridge, with Oracle leading by 1 second at the third gate.
The boats split gybes sailing downwind. When they came together, the American boat chose to slow and duck behind the Kiwis rather than gybing on them to cover, losing more than 100 yards.
Barker kept the lead as he rounded the fourth mark and sped to the finish line just off Pier 27-29.
“It was pretty close on that final run into the finish,” said star British Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie, who replaced American John Kostecki as Oracle’s tactician on Thursday.
Oracle won Race 9 decisively even after hitting something with its port rudder before the race. The shore crew repaired the top rudder bearing before the start and was making more repairs before Race 10.
Oracle had been getting stomped by the Kiwis sailing the only upwind leg on the course, but that changed since it made changes to its wing sail and jib setup to have the boat better balanced. The crew work also improved.
At one point on the windward leg in Race 9, as the boats zigzagged toward the Golden Gate Bridge, Ainslie was heard to say, “Lovely tack.”
Does Oracle wish it had made the changes earlier?
“We wish we’d made them about a year ago, to be honest,” Spithill said. “Then we might have found a few more. Look, this is the name of the game. This is a development boat. Like any racing sport, whether it be Formula One or MotoGP, you’re constantly learning at a race mode. We finally get to the race now and this is the most we’ve learned, really. Hindsight’s a beautiful thing, but the important thing is how you react and how you go from here on. Even after today we’ve got a heap of stuff that we’d like to do to the boat.”
On Sunday morning, Spithill tweeted a picture of a message that apparently was posted at the syndicate base to fire up the sailing team. The message included an expletive. He later deleted it after having a talk with America’s Cup CEO Stephen Barclay.
“If you get offended easily, you should probably stay away from the social media world,” Spithill said.
He added that it was “all in good nature.”
Mentioning Kiwi wing trimmer Glenn Ashby, a fellow Australian who coached Oracle during the 2010 America’s Cup, Spithill said: “Glenn up here is one of my best mates. When we’re on the water there, probably the biggest enemies. When you’re on the water you want to really kill the guy, and then you come on shore, especially at the end of the competition, regardless of the result, you get together and you have a couple of beers together. Depending who wins, you congratulate the guy and vice versa. That’s what sport’s all about. The last thing I want to do is offend any of the guys. I’ve got a lot of mates in New Zealand.”
Ashby said he didn’t see Spithill’s tweet.
“I’d rather go and sit on the beach and drink beer than sit at my computer on Facebook or Twitter, to be honest,” Ashby said.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson