SAN FRANCISCO Nobody believed Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill when he called his crew the underdogs before the America's Cup finals began. And no one believed him when, down 8-1 against New Zealand, he said they were going to make the greatest comeback in sailing history.
But in a dramatic final showdown Wednesday that one commentator called the "race of the century," the team owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison proved everybody wrong.
In an intense, come-from-behind effort on San Francisco Bay, Oracle Team USA beat Emirates Team New Zealand by 44 seconds to keep the oldest trophy in international sports.
Triumphant, Spithill and his crew pumped their fists and hugged each other as they flew by the shoreline, then in a heartening symbol of sportsmanship applauded their competitors and gave them a thumbs up as they sailed past.
"This is one hell of a day," Spithill said on board after the race. "I'm just so proud of the boys, to be facing the barrel of the gun and win. What these guys do they don't even flinch."
Ellison, who kept a low profile through the regatta, hugged the crew as he boarded the high-tech, 72-foot, hydrofoiling catamaran that forever changed the image of the America's Cup from a stodgy, blue-blood event to a heart-pounding, extreme sport.
Thousands of flag-waving American fans, who have been largely absent from the summer-long event and turned off by the expense and an embarrassing cheating scandal, turned out Wednesday to be part of history.
They cheered every tack, jibe and nail-biting lead change along the course. So many spectators streamed into the park at Pier 27/29 along The Embarcadero just before the 1:15 p.m. race time that the fire marshal had to turn people away. They strained on the sidewalk to get a glimpse of big screens broadcasting the race live or ran down to open vantage points along the shore.
"This is fantastic. I never dreamed I'd be so excited about sailing," spectator David Hyman said.
The win means the trophy stays in Ellison's hands, and barring political trouble with the city that dogged the event the first time around, the regatta is expected to return to San Francisco in the next few years.
The event got off to a slow start and was marred by the death of a crewman when Sweden's Artemis Racing boat capsized during training in the spring. Then came a cheating scandal involving a smaller boat raced in a preview regatta last year, resulting in Oracle Team USA being docked two races before the regatta began.
Wednesday, with the score 8-8 in the best-of-17 finals, the catamarans set out for the last race. The Kiwis were on the defensive, having lost the previous seven races. The Americans had the momentum.
The race started close, with both teams crossing the starting line side by side. In something not seen for several races, New Zealand led at the first mark as Oracle Team USA nose-dived nearby in the gusty wind before recovering quickly.
"We wanted to keep it exciting for you guys," Spithill told commentators.
New Zealand continued to lead downwind, at times by only a boat length, and was first to the leeward mark. But Oracle Team USA rounded the opposite gate and split the course, a strategic move that made the difference farther along the upwind leg, part of the course that repeatedly proved Oracle's undoing.
"This is it! This is it!" Oracle tactician Ben Ainslie shouted to his crew, his voice picked up by microphones on board. "Work your (butts) off!"
New Zealand led at two crossing points on the leg before Oracle finally passed New Zealand. From there, Oracle widened the lead. The U.S. team rounded the windward mark 26 seconds ahead, and after the last mark, Oracle charged to the finish.
Ellison praised his entire team for finding the right mode for the boat.
"The guys finally cracked the code, finally figured out what we had to do," he said.
More images from the final America's Cup race in San Francisco and Oracle Team USA's victory celebration.
sacbee.com/multimedia The Associated Press contributed to this report.