SAN FRANCISCO -- If you are planning to witness an America's Cup race here in person, better be quick about it. The whole thing could be over in a week.

"Couldn't have been a better start," Dean Barker, the skipper of New Zealand's boat, declared.

Easy for him to say, mate. He's winning.

Barker was technically referring to the way his crew performed in the opening moments of competition. But he could have been summing up the entire afternoon for his team.

On the first day of the final best-of-17 series between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA, the home side took a severe kick to the keel.

Oracle Team USA chases Emirates Team New Zealand  during the second race of America’s Cup in San Francisco, Calif. on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (Jim
Oracle Team USA chases Emirates Team New Zealand during the second race of America's Cup in San Francisco, Calif. on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group) ( Jim Gensheimer )

There were two races Saturday. Team New Zealand won both races, the second more impressively than the first. It needs just seven more victories and could clinch the Cup as soon as next Saturday. This is extremely happy news for the thousands of New Zealand followers here waving Kiwi flags -- which easily outnumbered USA flags along the waterfront on a gloriously sunny afternoon that spawned a thousand potential San Francisco postcards.

And what of Team USA? Not a happy bunch of swabbies. They effectively now trail New Zealand by four races instead of two. That's because Oracle Team USA began the series behind by two points -- or two races -- following a penalty from a previous competition. Thus, to come back and win, Oracle must win 11 races out of a potential 17.


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Jimmy Spithill, the USA skipper, was spinning Saturday's events as best as possible. He noted that his boat was evenly matched with New Zealand on certain legs of the races, not that much slower on others.

"It will be the small, little mistakes that decide each race," Spithill said.

So what specific mistakes did Oracle Team USA make Saturday?

"Until we get back and look at the video and the data, it's tough to say," Spithill said.

Oh, boy. The answer sounded very much like the answer a losing football coach gives when he either (A) doesn't wish to publicly blame specific team members or (B) knows his team (or in this case, his boat) just isn't good enough and doesn't want to admit it.

For the last two months, as preliminary races and practices unfolded on the bay, it became clear that Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand were the two fastest teams. But because of the format, they had never competed directly against each other. No one knew which one was faster or better.

Saturday, we began to get some answers. They weren't good ones for Oracle Team USA or for Larry Ellison, the Oracle software CEO who has poured more than $100 million into defending the America's Cup championship he won three years ago.

Both boats are remarkable feats of technology, skimming at more than 50 miles per hour downwind. But in auto racing terms, at least on Day 1, Team New Zealand seemed to have better cornering speed -- even when its catamaran was "foiling," or flying out of the water suspended on just four narrow slices of carbon fiber.

Saturday's first race was close and tense and exciting, with the skippers totally on top of their games as they exchanged the lead on tacking maneuvers during an upwind leg. (For those unfamiliar with sailing jargon, that means the boats zig-zagged in front of each other spectacularly and did a lot of other really cool stuff, even with the wind against them.) However, New Zealand was better when it mattered and won by 36 seconds.

The second race was more telling, after Spithill tried and failed to draw a penalty against New Zealand with some tight maneuvering before the start line. The boats nearly touched but not quite, as Brand steered his boat safely across the start. Then he and New Zealand gradually pulled away, winning by 52 seconds.

With two more races scheduled for Sunday afternoon, it's possible that Spithill and his crew might find more speed overnight back at its Pier 80 headquarters. But it's possible that New Zealand won't find more swiftness overnight, as well.

Say this much: As an event, the America's Cup finally played to a large and appreciative audience Saturday, following two months of ennui and general malaise. Officials guessed that 25,000 would show up to watch along the Pier 27/29 waterfront area and another 10,000 would gather at Marina Green. Both estimates appeared on the mark.

Still, there is no evidence that Ellison's stated America's Cup 2013 mission -- which was to convert millions of casual sports fans into sailing fans -- has been much of triumph. It has been a minor hit in San Francisco and certainly with the sailing crowd. But if organizers really wanted to grab television eyeballs from the non-swabbie crowd, then the schedule wouldn't call for the Cup finals to compete directly against the first days of the NFL season, plus college football and baseball pennant races.

As it turns out, the local folks didn't have a choice. Stephen Barclay, the chief executive for the local America's Cup Event authority, admitted the timetable wasn't ideal, but broadcast partner NBC wanted the final series to begin this weekend. The network has no afternoon college football or NFL games, so it thought sailing on the bay would be fine counter-programming. But as Barclay acknowledged, football fans will still watch football.

"If we could have waved a magic wand, we would have started this about a week earlier," Barclay said. "But these were the cards we were dealt."

There was one other peculiar thing that may or may not be connected to all this: While NBC is the America's Cup network, Ellison decided to conduct his one big sit-down television interview this summer with a competing network -- on the CBS "This Morning" show. Curious, to say the least.

At least, either in person or on television, we'll have more terrific eye candy to watch for the next week or so. But will the competition grow tighter? Or do Spithill and Oracle Team USA need the New Zealand boat to spring a leak -- or at least break something?

"You don't have to have much of a wobble to upset the apple cart," said New Zealand wing trimmer Glen Ashby.

So there's your official cheer for a USA comeback: Go, wobbles, go.

"This is just the start of a long road, a long event," insisted New Zealand skipper Barker.

If the definition of "long" is seven more races, Barker might be correct.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.