SAN FRANCISCO -- It was do or die for Oracle Team USA, and on Thursday, the American team did what it needed to do.
Desperate to hold onto the America's Cup it won in 2010, Oracle Team USA fended off Emirates Team New Zealand and won Race 12 by 31 seconds. The second race of the day, which would have given the Kiwis another chance to clinch the world's most prestigious regatta, was postponed because of high winds and strong tides.
Race 13, weather permitting, will be run at 1:15 p.m. Friday. New Zealand, which has won eight races, needs one more victory to bring the trophy back to Auckland. Oracle, which has won four races but docked two points because of a previous penalty, needs seven.
"Just when you think it might be over, Oracle finds a way to claw its way back," America's Cup commentator Tucker Thompson said after the race.
Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill says he believes he's in the midst of the greatest comeback of his career.
"We love a challenge. The thing that gives us confidence is -- we've all faced big comebacks before and been able to pull them off -- but what has given the team energy and momentum is the boat," Spithill told reporters after the race. "You can clearly see all the guys on the boat believe they've got the tools to get it done."
Both Spithill and New Zealand skipper Dean Barker say that they have been faced with a tremendously steep learning curve on the 72-foot catamarans that fly above the water on hydrofoils. And both teams are making improvements daily to the boats that were designed specifically for this 34th America's Cup on San Francisco Bay, where the racecourse is short and the winds are steady and strong.
"When we started, Dean and these guys had a significant edge upwind," Spithill said of the third leg of the course that confounded Oracle Team USA in a number of early races. With improvements made to the boat by the shore crew late into the nights, "now we think we're very competitive around the racetrack, and the guys sailing the boat believe we can win it."
Even Grant Dalton, New Zealand's managing director who also crews on the boat, acknowledged Oracle's improvements.
"They are getting better," Dalton said Thursday immediately after the race. "We just have to keep chipping away."
The teams are tight-lipped about the improvements they have made, but it was obvious that the Kiwis had shortened their front fairings for Wednesday's races and Oracle cut back its bowsprit to reduce drag.
In Race 12 on Thursday, the Americans got off to a strong start, "hooking" the Kiwis and forcing them to tack before the starting line.
That slowed the Kiwis and gave Oracle Team USA time to accelerate and take a three-boat lead right off the line. The team held a five-second lead at the first mark, extending it to 11 seconds at the leeward mark. The teams engaged in a tacking duel upwind on Leg 3, where Oracle in past races has struggled with boat speed and wobbly crew maneuvers.
This time, Oracle was sharp on its tacks and foiled upwind at speeds of 30 knots (34 mph), the same speed the boats racing in the challenger series last month were racing downwind, which is usually a much faster leg.
That speed shows just how many improvements the teams have made to go faster on all points of sail, both with the boat and with crew execution.
"The learning curve since we started the America's Cup has been very, very steep," Spithill said immediately after the race.
On the downwind Leg 4, where Oracle has shown a slight speed advantage, the American team widened its lead to more than 400 meters. It rounded the fourth mark 29 seconds ahead of the Kiwis and charged toward the finish line, crossing 31 seconds before Emirates Team New Zealand.
Both teams were ready for the second race when the heavier winds coupled with a strong ebb tide forced race officials to postpone until Friday.
Since Saturday, five of seven races have been postponed -- or in one case, abandoned halfway through -- because of high winds.
Wind limits were imposed after the capsize of Sweden's Artemis Racing during practice last spring that killed one of its sailors who was trapped under the wreckage. The teams have improved their handling of the high-tech boats since then, and Spithill said Thursday his team delivered a letter to the Kiwis asking them to agree to increased wind limits.
"You've got a beautiful breeze like this in the afternoon and we have to come ashore," Spithill said. "You've got to ask yourself, 'What are we doing out here?' "
But Barker said that when wind limits were being discussed last spring, it was the Kiwis who wanted the wind limit at 25 knots (about 28 mph) and the Americans who wanted it closer to 20 (23 mph).
The result was a compromise of some 23 knots (26 mph), but it can be lowered if the tides cause extra rough conditions.
Oracle now has shown that it tends to be faster than the Kiwis in stronger winds.
"It seems a bit strange that halfway through the series you need to change a wind limit that has been agreed," Barker said. "Prior to the start of racing, absolutely we would have agreed. But we don't think it's right to change it in the middle."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.
Emirates Team New Zealand 8 points,
Oracle Team USA 2 points
Best-of-17 series or first team to 9 points
Friday: Races 13 and 14*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. TV TBA
Saturday: Races 15* and 16*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. 12:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
Sunday: Races 17* and 18*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. TV TBA
Monday: Race 19*, 1:15 p.m. TV TBA
* -- if necessary
NOTE: Because of penalties, Oracle Team USA began the America's Cup with minus-2 points, meaning it would need to win 11 races to retain the America's Cup. New Zealand needs to win nine.
Purdy: Team USA win only delays the inevitable.