US beats Kiwis on opening day of America's Cup qualifiers

The America's Cup qualifiers got off to a smashing start Saturday on Bermuda's Great Sound.

It was a good day for two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA and a bad one for Sir Ben Ainslie of Britain.

Moments after Oracle Team USA came from behind to beat Emirates Team New Zealand in a thrilling rematch between the 2013 finalists, Ainslie, the skipper of Land Rover BAR, crashed his 50-foot foiling catamaran into SoftBank Team Japan during the prestart of the day's sixth and final race.

Crewmen on SoftBank Team Japan had to leap clear of Ainslie's port hull as it smashed onto their starboard hull. The collision punched a hole in the bottom of the British boat's carbon fiber hull and caused part of it to delaminate.

Ainslie was penalized and SoftBank Team Japan, skippered by former Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, sailed off to a 48-second win.

Fortunately for the Brits, they were able to keep the catamaran riding on its hydrofoils throughout the race, with the hulls out of the water.

''We were lucky we did. By the time we got to the dock she was on her way down,'' Ainslie said. ''It was all hands to the pumps and bailing. It's been about 30 years since I was bailing out Optimist dinghies, and it wasn't something I was expecting to do.

''The boat is pretty badly damaged, with a sizeable hole in the port hull,'' he said.'' It was a great effort by the team to get the boat around the course in the state that it was in.''

Ainslie called the collision ''unfortunate,'' adding, ''we had a sideways slip just as Dean came in and got the leeward overlap. No one wants that, certainly in our position as we picked up a penalty and the damage. Thankfully, the most important thing is that no one got hurt.''

The British shore team has less than 24 hours to repair the boat before Sunday's races, when Land Rover BAR faces Oracle and Team New Zealand.

''A long night ahead, I'd say,'' shore team leader Richy O'Farrell said.

Barker said the team was ''incredibly lucky' there were no injuries, but that its shore team would be working through the night to repair damage.

''Ben has apologized,'' Barker said.

''You know what is about to happen. You can see it coming in slow motion but there is nothing you can do to stop it,'' Barker said. ''What would have been worse is if their boat came a little bit higher over our hull, that would have been really dangerous.''

It was the third collision this spring for Ainslie, who sailed with Oracle in 2013 and is the most decorated sailor in Olympic history. He hit the dock while returning from a practice session on March 22 and then ran into the back of Emirates Team New Zealand during a practice race on May 16, causing significant damage that took the Kiwis three days to repair.

Oracle went 2-0 while Land Rover BAR, Team New Zealand, Artemis Racing of Sweden and SoftBank Team Japan all went 1-1. Groupama Team France was routed in its two races.

The qualifiers started the same way the 2013 America's Cup ended, with Oracle rallying to beat Team New Zealand. Four years ago, Team New Zealand reached match point against Oracle on San Francisco Bay before the American team, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, won eight straight races to cap one of the greatest comebacks in sports.

On Saturday, there were two lead changes. Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill caught the Kiwis, now helmed by Olympic gold and silver medalist Peter Burling, as the catamarans rounded the mark onto the sixth of seven legs and pulled away to win by six seconds.

''It's good to get back out there against them,'' said Spithill, an Australian. ''Both boats are very competitive and it really came down to the sailing side. There were a couple of tactical, match-race situations that decided that race. That's a good sign.''

This is the first time the defender has sailed against challengers in the preliminaries. Oracle and the five challengers will compete in two round robins, which will eliminate one challenger. Oracle will then train on its own while the challengers sail their semifinals and finals. The winner will meet Oracle in the first-to-seven America's Cup match starting June 17.

Oracle pulled into a 3-3 tie atop the standings with Land Rover BAR, which opened with two bonus points based on preliminary regattas. Oracle came in with one bonus point.

If the winner of the qualifiers is Oracle or a challenger that advances to the match, that team will start the match with a one-point bonus.

Oracle opened Saturday's racing with a 2:11 rout of Groupama Team France.

The British looked strong in beating Artemis Racing by 11 seconds. Artemis, which looked good in practice races in recent weeks, beat SoftBank Team Japan by 13 seconds. Emirates Team New Zealand routed France by 2:33.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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