SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Two sailing powerhouses that have spent the summer trading verbal jabs are finally set to meet in the ultimate grudge match — the 34th America's Cup.
Emirates Team New Zealand zipped through a thick fog and past Italy's Luna Rossa one last time Sunday, capturing the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series 7-1 and advancing to the premier event against defending champion and bitter rival Oracle Team USA.
The best-of-17 America's Cup starts Sept 7.
"It's really important. I mean, it's really important," said Team New Zealand managing director Grant Dalton, who also serves as a grinder even though he's 56. "The team understands that. When you give a speech to a yacht club here in San Francisco, the one thing my granddad always taught me is you don't start a speech with an apology, and I always do start with an apology. The only reason we're in San Francisco is to take the Cup away."
The Kiwis crushed the conditions and the competition in the challenger finals.
The closest margin was 1 minute, 28 seconds, and Luna Rossa's lone victory came when Team New Zealand dropped out because the electronics system that controls the hydraulics of its catamaran failed. The Kiwis won the final race — the lightest wind of the series thanks to a fog that blanketed San Francisco Bay — by the largest margin: 3:20.
The Kiwis sounded their horn as they crossed the finish line and sprayed sparkling wine on the boat from nearby Napa Valley while taking a victory lap near thousands who crowded the corner piers.
This is the fifth time since 1995 Team New Zealand has reached the America's Cup match. The only time it didn't make it was 2010, which was a one-off between Oracle and Switzerland's Alinghi following a bitter court fight.
Skipper Dean Barker believes the challenger series helped Team New Zealand learn the course and polish its performances, foiling faster — and even upwind — and pulling off more foiling gybes under all kinds of currents and conditions. Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena, whose team has always touted this summer as stepping stone to the next America's Cup, said the team accomplished its goals and will continue to sail against the Kiwis in practices to help both crews build experience.
The Emirates and Oracle teams aren't even close to that cooperative. About the only thing both sides can agree on is the series should be close.
In a race for the oldest active trophy in international sports, the bitterness between both offers one of the more scintillating subplots in recent America's Cup matches.
Dalton and Barker both accused Oracle Team USA of cheating after it was revealed the U.S. syndicate illegally modified its boats in the America's Cup World Series, a warmup to this summer's racing.
Russell Coutts, a New Zealander who is CEO of Oracle Team USA, recently told The Associated Press that his syndicate is incredibly motivated because of Dalton's barbs.
"I don't have to give a motivational speech. This team is incredibly motivated to win. This has picked it up 10, 20, 30 notches. They can thank Grant Dalton," Coutts said.
An international jury is expected to rule on the matter as soon as this week. Sanctions against Oracle could include a fine, forfeiture of races in the America's Cup or disqualification from the regatta.
Oracle even filed a protest alleging that the Kiwis had trespassed to gather information in the case. Team New Zealand responded that the allegation was "laughable." Oracle withdrew its protest.
Additionally, Dalton and Coutts traded insults at a gala dinner in Auckland earlier this year. Dalton criticized Oracle Team USA owner Larry Ellison because his vision of a grand regatta with a dozen or more challengers fell far short, as the cost of the high-performance 72-foot catamarans and the perceived peril of sailing them kept several competitors out.
Coutts responded by criticizing Dalton's record and wondering why New Zealand couldn't find someone younger to sail on the boat. Coutts, 51, who won the America's Cup three times as a skipper and once as Oracle Team USA's CEO, doesn't sail on the U.S.-backed boat and didn't sail in the syndicate's two-race sweep of Alinghi of Switzerland in the 2010 America's Cup.
"They do look really good, but they've got to get through next week yet as well," Dalton said, referring to pending jury decision in another subtle swipe.
Despite the country each represents, the crews are quite contrasting.
Team New Zealand has a strong national identity, representing a small island nation where people are vastly outnumbered by sheep. Because they rely on government funding, the Kiwis have said Team New Zealand will cease to exist if it doesn't win the America's Cup.
"The culture of our team is our strength," Barker said.
Oracle, by comparison, has a multinational crew, including Australian-born skipper Jimmy Spithill. Only one American, tactician John Kostecki, was on Oracle's crew when it won the America's Cup in 2010.
How fast each team is won't be clear until they hit the water.
"We're apprehensive," Dalton said. "We think they're fast, but we don't know."
AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.