SAN FRANCISCO — The first day of the newfangled America's Cup on San Francisco Bay ended with Emirates Team New Zealand skimming above the waves faster and better than defending champion Oracle Team USA.
The Kiwis, who had been considered the underdog until Oracle was hit with the harshest penalties in the regatta's 162-year history, won the first two races of the 34th America's Cup on Saturday with what appeared to be better boat speed, tactics and crew work aboard their high-performance, 72-foot catamaran.
"For us, it couldn't have been a better start," said Dean Barker, the Kiwis skipper. "I'm really proud of the way the guys sailed. The boat was spot-on."
Both Barker and rival skipper Jimmy Spithill said it's too early to tell if the Kiwis have a speed edge. While Spithill was aggressive in both races, the American-based crew didn't always make the right calls.
"I don't think you can say we lost on boat speed," Spithill said. "I think we made just a few little mistakes here and there. It was very, very tight racing. There will be a lot of lessons learned. I think the team that can really take steps forward from these days, win or lose, will be the team that will advance more."
At the very least, the Kiwis took the lead on the American powerhouse, which is owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp.
The Kiwis lost and then regained the lead to win the opening race by 36 seconds. They led the whole way in the second race to win by 52 seconds.
The Kiwis need seven more wins to claim the oldest trophy in international sports for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, which held the Auld Mug from 1995 to 2003. Races 3 and 4 are scheduled for today.
Oracle Team USA must win 11 races to retain the Cup. An international jury docked Oracle two points in the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year history of the America's Cup. The penalties were imposed for illegally modifying 45-foot catamarans in warmup regattas called the America's Cup World Series last year and earlier this year. The punishment meant that Oracle started the regatta at minus-2.
On Saturday, the racing disproved concerns that there would be no passing lanes on the short course between the Golden Gate Bridge to just past Alcatraz Island, and that the competition would be devoid of match-racing tactics.
There were both in the opening races of the first America's Cup contested inshore rather than miles out at sea.
Barker was a little quicker off the starting line just inside the Golden Gate Bridge and beat Spithill to the reaching first mark in both races. That allowed him to dictate the race from there.
This is also the first time sailing's marquee regatta has featured foiling catamarans, which lift onto hydrofoils when they reach a certain speed, with both hulls completely out of the water. That reduces drag and increases speed.