SAN FRANCISCO -- With strong bay winds Saturday, Emirates Team New Zealand set a speed record on the race course against Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge during Race 7 of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals.
The Kiwis lead the best-of-13 series 6-1 and can clinch with one victory Sunday. That would advance New Zealand to the 34th America's Cup against Oracle Team USA beginning Sept. 7.
On Saturday, strong winds and a speedy catamaran propelled the Kiwis to a nearly two-minute victory in San Francisco Bay. On the second downwind leg, New Zealand set the course speed record of 47.2 knots (54 mph), moving nearly twice the speed of the wind and five times faster than traditional monohulls that have raced in most America's Cup regattas.
New Zealand also posted an impressive 30 knots (34 mph) sailing upwind.
Much has been made of the dangers of the hi-tech 72-foot catamarans, but the skippers of both boats Saturday said the ride was exhilarating.
"The boats are unbelievably exciting to sail," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said after Saturday's race. As the boat speeds up and begins to vibrate, "the thing feels like its going to shake itself to pieces. It's a real buzz."
Despite Luna Rossa's loss, even skipper Chris Draper called Saturday's racing in winds upward of 25 mph "incredible."
"Ten years ago we would have set the world speed record," Draper said, noting his team hit 46.8 knots (nearly 54 mph) on a reach before the start. "They're just nuts to sail."
The finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series could have ended Saturday -- the silver Louis Vuitton Cup trophy and Mumm Napa sparkling wine was at the ready for sailors to celebrate -- but Race 8 was canceled because of unsafe conditions.
Saturday's Race 7 was in many ways a duplicate of Friday's first race. Both boats started side-by-side, Luna Rossa trailed by four seconds at the first mark, then New Zealand widened the gap over the 10-mile course and never looked back.
Luna Rossa tactician Francesco Bruni said his team will give 100 percent in Sunday's race, "and wait for a mistake from them."
LOUIS VUITTON CUP FINALS
Emirates Team New Zealand 6,
Luna Rossa Challenge 1
Sunday: Races 8 and 9*, 1:10 p.m. and 2:10 p.m. live on COZI TV, 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
Monday: Race 10*, TBA
Wednesday: Races 11* and 12*, 1:10 p.m. and 2:10 p.m. live on NBCBA, 2 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
Friday: Race 13*, 1:10 p.m. live on NBCBA, 2 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
* -- if necessary
COZI TV is available on Channel 186 on Comcast Cable or broadcast digital Channel 11.2.