SAN FRANCISCO — Emirates Team New Zealand tore the tarp in the center of its catamaran and lost two men overboard before holding on to beat hobbled Italian Team Luna Rossa in a scary opener to the Louis Vuitton Cup finals Saturday.
The Italians scrambled to fix lines around the right dagger board of their 72-foot catamaran just before the start. They caught a break when officials delayed the race 20 minutes waiting for the wind to drop below the 18.9-knot limit (21.74 mph).
Luna Rossa’s broken board wobbled up-and-down within seconds, and the team fell far behind as they made more repairs. The Kiwis quickly had their boat foiling above the water, and they seemed to be flying away with the win until the front of the hulls dipped under water and two men tumbled overboard during a sharp turn.
Grinders Chris Ward and Rob Wadell, who could’ve been crushed by the hulls that crashed down after they tumbled overboard, were lifted out of the water by a rescue boat within seconds. Nobody was injured.
“We’re thankful all the guys are OK. It’s just part of racing,” Emirates skipper Dean Barker said.
The second race of the best-of-13 series was scrapped because the wind exceeded the 19.4-knot limit (22.32 mph) set for that race, adjusted depending on the tide. Two races will be held Sunday, wind permitting, and the makeup race will be Monday.
The winner of the series will face Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup starting Sept. 7.
The frightening scene on the first day of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals is the latest setback for the troubled regatta.
During a training run May 9, British sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed in the capsize of Swedish Team Artemis Racing’s first boat. After Simpson’s death, regatta director Iain Murray made 37 safety recommendations. The Kiwis and Italians filed protests over two highly technical issues, and won.
Oracle also has been branded as cheaters by the two remaining challengers after it was found that two of its three prototype boats used in warm-up regattas last year and early this year were illegally modified. An international jury is investigating and could sanction Oracle with a fine, forfeiture of races in the America’s Cup match or disqualification.
Software billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns the defending champion Oracle Team USA, offered a grand vision for this America’s Cup, including perhaps more than 10 foreign challengers sailing around Alcatraz Island with the backdrop of San Francisco’s steep hills. But only three challengers built 72-foot catamarans for this summer’s competition and organizers had to scale back plans.
In addition, there were several days in July where just one boat sailed around the course to collect a point. The first was on July 7, when Italy boycotted the opening race of the challenger trials because of the rules spat. The others occurred on days when Italy and New Zealand were scheduled to face Sweden’s Artemis Racing, which sat out the round-robins because its second boat wasn’t ready following the wreck.
While most of the summer has been a disappointment, organizers had hoped the Louis Vuitton Cup finals would revive the regatta.
Instead, the only thing the Italians are beating the Kiwis at so far is style points. Luna Rossa is backed by the Prada fashion house, its boat’s twin hulls are chrome and its silver gear — including crash helmets and life vests — make them look more like spacemen than sailors on scenic San Francisco Bay.
The Kiwis went 5-0 against the Italians in the round-robins, including the opener that Luna Rossa boycotted. The Kiwis twice beat the Italians by more than 5 minutes, and the closest margin was 2:19.
Emirates earned the right to advance straight to the Louis Vuitton Cup final based on its performance in the round-robins. Luna Rossa swept Artemis Racing 4-0 in the semifinals.
Two, five-leg races are planned each day to determine who will face Oracle. Each race will last approximately 25 minutes, with a break of about 30 minutes between races.
Murray expected the wind to approach — and possibly surpass — the wind strength limit he set for the second race, forcing its postponement. But wind for the first race, which was not expected to be an issue, teetered on the limit.