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America's Cup: How Team Oracle flew past the wind to revive yacht racing (+video)

Team Oracle USA won the America's Cup final Wednesday, coming back from a seven-race deficit. The moment is a landmark for a venerable sailing race that is reinventing itself.

By Staff Writer / September 25, 2013

Oracle Team USA crosses the finish line during the 18th race of the America's Cup sailing event against Emirates Team New Zealand on Tuesday in San Francisco. Oracle Team USA won both races Tuesday to even the series.

Ben Margot/AP

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ATLANTA

The amazing winner-take-all showdown between the Americans and the Kiwis in America’s Cup 2013 on Wednesday afternoon has become a Cinderella moment not just for sailors crewing boats that now sail way faster than the wind, but also for a TV audience looking for speed and a hint of danger.

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Oracle Team USA completed the biggest comeback in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup regatta with a win today against Emirates Team New Zealand, which had been on the brink of victory for the past week. Matt Miller reports on Bloomberg Television's "Street Smart."

After his win at the last America’s Cup in 2010, Oracle Team USA's owner, tech magnate and adrenaline junkie Larry Ellison, threw down the gauntlet for the next race: Double the hull, quadruple the speed. That gambit by a high-flying American industrialist could catapult sailing into the top echelons of racing sports, but it has arguably already had deadly consequences, causing critics to pan America’s Cup 2013 as a “billionaire death match.” (It now takes an easy $100 million to pose an America’s Cup challenge.)

Mr. Ellison “is obviously financially involved, but that’s not as important to him as the risk that he took in staging this spectacle on San Francisco Bay, in these high-tech catamarans, where nobody thought it was going to take hold, and now it’s taken hold in a bigger way then I think he had dreamed,” says Julian Guthrie, a San Francisco journalist who chronicled Ellison’s America’s  Cup journey in “The Billionaire and the Mechanic.”

Designers found new orders of speed to tap by utilizing hydrofoils that in essence allow the 72-foot-long, 13,000-pound AC72 catamaran, powered by a stiff 131-foot wingsail, to lift out of the water and fly, trailing only a sliver of foil in the water. That technological leap forward raised top speeds from around 10 knots to over 40 knots – speeds achieved with the wind blowing 20 knots or less.

“The AC72s will look amazing, will be very fast, and will take the America’s Cup into a new dimension,” Pete Melvin, one of the boat’s designers, said in 2010.

Those predictions have borne fruit. Since the racing started on Sept. 7, excitement has been building as the two boats jockey gunwale to gunwale at breakneck speeds in San Francisco Bay – notable for its heady winds. America's Cup 2013 also marks the first time the race has been held within easy viewing distance from shore. Crashes, rule infractions, and tactician changes intensified the drama as Team Emirates New Zealand took a commanding 8-1 lead in the first-to-9 competition. 

But few sailing enthusiasts could have dreamed up what’s become a crazy comeback by the American boat, helmed by Jimmy Spithill (an Aussie). But as the regatta entered its second, then third week, something peculiar happened: The American boat got faster and faster, climbing back race by nail-biting race until the crew won another exciting heat on Tuesday by drawing to an 8-8 tie. That sets up a winner-take-all affair Wednesday. [Editor's post-race note: Oracle Team USA won the race and the Cup]

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