By Jonathan Weber
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand on Wednesday edged to within one win of taking home the America's Cup, defeating Oracle Team USA in a close-fought race that again showcased the Kiwis' seamless teamwork and superior strategy at the start.
But New Zealand will have to wait at least another day to clinch the Cup after Wednesday's second race was postponed seconds before the starting gun due to high winds, the second straight day that a strong sea breeze and outgoing tide combined to make conditions on San Francisco Bay unsafe for the fragile 72-foot catamarans.
In the race that did take place, New Zealand turned in a textbook performance that left defender Oracle with nowhere to turn. Oracle, once the favourite to retain the title that it won three years ago, still needs eight victories to hold on to the trophy.
New Zealand won the start and never trailed, crossing the finish line 15 seconds ahead of the Cup defender, although Oracle closed the gap briefly on the crucial upwind leg before losing ground again with a poor tacking manoeuvre.
"Every win is so hard. You're thankful for every win you get," said New Zealand skipper Dean Barker. "You have two boats that are pretty even in performance."
New Zealand dominated matches between the two teams in the first week of the America's Cup finals on San Francisco Bay, then lost momentum over the weekend when a vastly improved Oracle won its second and third matches, raising hopes of a last-minute comeback.
Oracle, which lost six of the first seven races in the series, became far more competitive after making changes to its twin-hulled AC72 and has greatly improved its upwind tacking. But Oracle's new-found speed appears most pronounced in heavier winds, and the breezes were comparatively light in Wednesday's race, averaging 15 knots (17 mph).
On Tuesday, both races were cancelled. Organizers set the limits on wind speeds after Swedish team Artemis Racing suffered a fatal training accident in May.
A proposal by Oracle this week to increase the wind limits for racing was rejected by New Zealand.
Sunday's matches were among the most thrilling in yacht-racing history. The two supercharged AC72s duelled neck and neck in the second race, changing leads four times, an America's Cup record, before New Zealand eked out a victory. On Saturday, New Zealand narrowly avoided catastrophe with a near-capsize that cost it the race.
But Wednesday's first race reverted to form, with New Zealand's steady performance proving more than enough for victory.
Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said he was not yet prepared to let the coveted trophy go. "It's a long way from over," he said.
( The story was refiled to change byline)
(Editing by Alden Bentley)