SAN FRANCISCO — The longest America's Cup in history will come down to two 72-foot, space-age catamarans in a final sprint around San Francisco Bay, on a five-leg course near the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill and defending champion Oracle Team USA saw to that Tuesday by extending their winning streak to seven to force today's one-race, winner-take-all finale against Emirates Team New Zealand.
Oracle came through a wild start with two collisions to win Race 17, then sped past the Kiwis after making a tactical error to give up the lead in Race 18.
All but defeated a week ago, Oracle Team USA tied the faltering Kiwis 8-8. Oracle has actually won 10 races but was docked two points for illegal modifications.
Either Oracle will finish one of the greatest comebacks in sports history or Team New Zealand, on match point for the past week, will claim the Auld Mug for the second time in 18 years and ease the nerves of an island nation with 4.5 million residents.
Oracle has made changes almost nightly and learned to sail better under the watchful eye of team CEO Russell Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner.
But there's a bigger reason Oracle is still alive.
"Never giving up," Spithill said.
The 34-year-old Australian has been almost defiant in leading his well-funded, deep team after it was penalized four days before the sailing began.
"I really feel it's because we've been through such hard times in this campaign that it's prepared us for this situation," he said.
Oracle's first boat capsized in October and its wing sail was destroyed, costing the team four months of training time.
Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, the loser in the 2003 and 2007 America's Cup, looked deflated after the losses.
"We got beaten today, and that's tough to handle, but sometimes you just have to accept that," he said. "It's frustrating, but we know we can still win this, and we will go out there and give it absolutely everything we can (today)."
The races were so pivotal that software billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns Oracle Team USA, skipped making a keynote speech before 60,000 people at Oracle Open World so he could witness the comeback firsthand from a chase boat on the bay.
In Race 18 the Kiwis tacked too early and slowed while zigzagging toward the Golden Gate Bridge on the only windward leg on the course. The American-backed boat — with only one American on its 11-man crew — sped past and built its lead to more than 1,000 yards, going on to win by 54 seconds.
Oracle Team USA has won nine times in 13 races since Ben Ainslie, a British Olympic star, replaced American John Kostecki as tactician.