U.S. Team Must Rally To Win America's Cup

The America's Cup is winding down and many in San Francisco say it has fallen short of expectation — on and off the water. The defending champions Oracle Team USA, the hometown favorites, are close to defeat by Emirates Team New Zealand. The regatta will likely be remembered for failing to live up to its hype.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, the America's Cup is in its final days and it doesn't look good for the home team. Team USA has been looking better lately but still trails, seven-to-one. Even if the Americans stage a comeback, the regatta will likely be remembered for failing to live up to its hype.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: At the race finish line at Pier 27, San Francisco's dependable winds were blowing better than 20 knots yesterday, too strong for the massive, seven ton catamarans to sail safely. These high-tech boats are 72 feet long with fixed sails that are 131 feet tall - that's 13 stories tall - and they are capable of hydroplaning at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Exactly what spectators like Robert Tang came to see.

ROBERT TANG: I am just amazed with the technology on these boats. It's as if these boats are flying on top of the water. Now, is it a sailboat race or is it a flying boat race?

GONZALES: Joe Kirk, a tourist from Pennsylvania, was holding a sign encouraging Jimmy Spithill, the skipper for Oracle Team USA. Kirk says these boats and their crews are a special breed.

JIMMY SPITHILL: There are hurricane force winds. They're facing just extraordinary forces on the boast itself. The athleticism is truly incredibly exciting to see in San Francisco - best sailing venue in the world. I'm from Pittsburg, I love to come out here and I love getting back on the bay.

GONZALES: It's exactly that enthusiasm that city officials hoped to tap into when Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison, owner of Oracle Team USA, offered to bring the regatta to his home region.

But the event has suffered a number of setbacks. In May, one sailor, Bart Simpson of the Swedish team, died in a tragic accident. The Swedes, one of just three challengers in the race, never really recovered. The event took another public relations hit when the defending champion, Oracle Team USA, was penalized in a cheating scandal.

Now after 10 races, New Zealand has a commanding lead and some fans of the American team, like Dr. Bonnie Zell, can't help but notice there seem to be a lot more Kiwi fans at the races than Americans.

DR. BONNIE ZELL: I think sailing in America is still seen as more of an elite sport. And there are certainly people here who can afford not to be at work. But it's not something that like a ballgame or the 49ers, where people are willing to take a day off to come down to see this happen.

GONZALES: That idea, that the America's Cup is a rich man's regatta, is not uncommon here. These boats cost about $10 million and many millions more are needed just to compete. It was all supposed to generate crowds, enthusiasm, and economic benefits for the city. But many officials are unimpressed to say the least.

JOHN AVALOS: Yeah, I do think we've been played.

GONZALES: John Avalos is a San Francisco supervisor. He says the rosy projections were based on the expectation that there would be perhaps as many as 15 teams competing, instead there were only four.

AVALOS: I feel that we've been sold a bill of goods.

GONZALES: But sailing enthusiasts around the bay say the jury is still out. Anthony Sandberg is president of OCSC, a sailing and adventure club in nearby Berkeley.

ANTHONY SANDBERG: Sailing will never be the same. My reference to what it looks like when you're sailing these boats, it's an elephant going 50 miles an hour with one foot on a skateboard. And the entire 13,000 pound ship and 12 men are flying across the water. It's magic.

GONZALES: Oracle Team USA may need its own magic. The Kiwis can win just two more races to eliminate the Americans in the world's pre-eminent sailing contest.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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