SAN FRANCISCO – The end came with a burst of speed and a charge across San Francisco Bay.
As the sleek, massive American catamaran sprinted upwind, tactician Ben Ainslie called to his crew mates.
“This is it,” he hollered. “This is it.”
Defending champion Oracle Team USA easily beat challenger Emirates Team New Zealand on a bright Wednesday afternoon to complete one of the greatest comebacks in sports history and win the 34th America’s Cup.
Down eight races to one and facing elimination for the better part of a week, Oracle managed a string of victories to reach a winner-take-all finale and prevail, 9-8, in the longest, closest series in 162 years of Cup history.
“We faced the barrel of the gun at 8-1,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said of his 11-man crew. “What did these guys do? They didn’t even flinch.”
For Emirates, the final day was a disheartening end to nearly three weeks of racing that saw wild momentum swings and the rival boats crisscrossing and bumping at up to 50 mph as if they were stock cars.
“The Oracle boys just found another couple of gears through the regatta,” Emirates tactician Ray Davies said. “Hats off to them.”
Only twice before in the Cup’s history had the competition come down to a deciding race. British sailing historian Bob Fisher could not recall such nip-and-tuck battles throughout a series.
“There were lead changes,” he said. “We haven’t seen lead changes at the America’s Cup for years and years.”
Crowds cheered from a nearby pier, waving American flags in the breeze as Oracle crossed the finish line 44 seconds ahead of its rival. Team owner Larry Ellison, the technology billionaire, soon hopped aboard the boat to join his crew in spraying champagne.
The Kiwis could only watch from afar, easing toward the dock, wondering what had gone wrong.
“It’s a difficult pill to swallow,” skipper Dean Barker said.
Where does Oracle’s victory rank among sports comebacks?
It ranks with the Boston Red Sox overcoming a three-game deficit against their hated rivals, the New York Yankees, to capture the 2004 American League pennant and then break an 86-year curse by winning the World Series.
And in 1969, the Boston Celtics fell two games behind the Lakers before winning the NBA championship.
Neither of those teams faced the prospect of having to win eight consecutive times.
“A lesser team would have dropped the ball and split apart,” Spithill said earlier in the week. “This team pulled itself together.”
Wednesday also put an upbeat ending on what had begun as a troubled, controversial regatta.
Cup rules allow for the defending champion to select the site and the type of boat to be raced. Ellison made an unorthodox choice to defend his title on the Bay with catamarans.
The 72-foot-long AC72 sails much faster than traditional monohulled yachts, rising above the surface on slender hydrofoils at top speed. It has a towering wing instead of a mainsail.
The change prompted some people to refer to the competition as NASCAR on water.
The description seemed fitting when the boats proved dangerous. During training runs last spring, a Swedish entrant capsized, killing one of its crew members.
Traditionalists grumbled even louder when Oracle was found to have added improper ballast to a smaller version of the AC72 during a series of preliminary regattas dating to 2012. An international jury handed down a two-race penalty, meaning the American boat had to win 11 races instead of nine.
The challenge seemed insurmountable as Emirates began the regatta looking significantly faster, especially on the course’s critical upwind leg. Though Oracle won a few races, the Kiwis sprinted to an 8-1 lead.
Their best chance to close things out came last week when they were leading in light winds but could not complete the course within the allotted 40 minutes.
That gave Oracle, representing the Golden Gate Yacht Club, a chance to continue making changes.
The shore crew came up with technical adjustments – no one would say exactly what – to increase speed. The boat also switched tacticians, bringing in Ainslie, a respected British sailor who had been serving as an alternate.
After that, Oracle started winning. “It was a Lazarus-like resurrection,” said Fisher, who has covered the last 15 America’s Cup finals.
Now Ellison has the right to set the parameters for the next America’s Cup and continue his quest to make the regatta more television-friendly and relevant to young fans.
But for now, the Oracle crew – which in this truly international sport includes only one American – can celebrate a victory for the record books.