America's Cup reaches crossroads as Kiwis near win

HAMILTON, Bermuda (AP) The first and perhaps only America's Cup sailed in the Bermuda Triangle could be over as soon as Sunday afternoon, bringing champagne showers to the Great Sound and changes to sailing's marquee regatta.

That is, unless Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA have any comeback magic left.

That'll be a big ask, considering how fast and dominating helmsman Peter Burling and Emirates Team New Zealand were in routing Oracle in the first four races last weekend.

After a five-day break, the showdown between 50-foot foiling catamarans resumes with two races Saturday, if there's enough wind, and two Sunday.

The Kiwis lead 3-0 in the first-to-seven match. Because Oracle won the qualifiers, the Kiwis started at minus-1.

The underfunded yet scrappy Kiwis need four more wins to give American software billionaire Larry Ellison the heave-ho and take the silver trophy back to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland, where it resided from 1995-2003.

Perhaps the most keen observer this weekend will be New Zealander Russell Coutts, one of the most dominant figures in the regatta's history. He once sailed undefeated through three straight America's Cup matches for two countries, the first two with Team New Zealand and the third for Switzerland, before winning two more as CEO of Oracle Team USA. His quest for a third victory as Ellison's top sailing lieutenant is in jeopardy.

Coutts, who is in the unusual role of also being CEO of the America's Cup Event Authority, has been at Oracle's base trying to help the team figure out how to sail the boat better.

Without time to make major modifications to the boat, technique will be key against the Kiwis, who have been spot-on in maneuvering their boat, especially in light to medium breeze.

''I have no doubt that there are gains there, and there are significant gains that can be made,'' said Coutts, who has had a hand in winning five of the last six America's Cup matches.

Coutts was working with the Oracle crew this week to improve its decision-making. In sailing these boats, split-second decisions can lead to big gains or big losses.

''Is it possible? Of course it's possible,'' Coutts said. ''Absolutely. Even if you can't change equipment, you can definitely dream up ways of sailing the boat better and using better technique.''

That's pretty much how Oracle launched its comeback from an 8-1 deficit to Team New Zealand in 2013. The crew quickly learned to sail the boat better and won eight straight races to complete one of the greatest comebacks in sports.

This time they're up against a Kiwi team that has been rebuilt since their mind-numbing San Francisco meltdown. Team New Zealand appears to have nailed its design package, from its foils to its revolutionary cycling grinding system to how skipper Glenn Ashby controls the shape of the wingsail to its windage.

Coutts is impressed with Team New Zealand's boat design. It was Coutts who skippered Team New Zealand's remarkably fast sloop Black Magic to a five-race sweep of Dennis Conner off San Diego in 1995, taking the Auld Mug to the land of the long white cloud for the first time.

''They've got this history of innovation,'' Coutts said. ''Even with personnel changes, there's this culture that's developed. They've got different designers, different sailors, different management, whatever, but you look at the number of innovative things that that team has created over the years, it's impressive. And this time is possibly one of the most impressive editions. They've taken quite a different approach than all of the other teams in a number of areas. They've already proven to be really, really successful.''

Coutts successfully defended the America's Cup for New Zealand in 2000 before jumping ship to Alinghi and leading the Swiss team to a five-race sweep of his former mates in 2003. He sat out the 2007 match after getting sacked by Swiss boss Ernesto Bertarelli. Coutts was CEO of Oracle Team USA when it beat Alinghi in a match of giant multihulls in 2010 and then defended against Team New Zealand in 2013.

With Team New Zealand looking so strong, there are already questions about whether the Kiwis will stick with catamarans or return to monohulls if they lift the Cup off Ellison.

Team New Zealand was the only syndicate that didn't sign a framework agreement that calls for the next two America's Cup regattas to be sailed in catamarans in 2019 and 2021.

Two former America's Cup winners, John Bertrand of Australia and Bertarelli, have been in Bermuda in recent days and could return to the event if the Kiwis win.

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

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