Kiwis lead in Louis Vuitton Cup finals

SAN FRANCISCO -- Perfect conditions and a pair of completed races finally showed what most had long expected in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals: the Kiwis are dominating the competition.

Skipper Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand sailed two near-flawless races Wednesday, overpowering Italy's Luna Rossa to take a 4-1 lead in the finals of the America's Cup challenger series.

"It's fantastic, isn't it? That's what the crowds have come to see -- two boats finishing two races and San Francisco at its best," Emirates tactician Ray Davies said. "Good, close racing there at times. It was always going to be hard to keep the racing close. But we saw some glimpses of that."

Brief glimpses, anyway.

In the first races of the series without a mechanical failure, Emirates looked every bit like the boat to beat on sparkling San Francisco Bay. Barker guided the Kiwis ahead by the first mark both times, leaving the Luna Rossa crew and its silver sailing gear glistening from behind the rest of the way.

Emirates won the first race by 2 minutes, 18 seconds and the second race by 1:28. One race is planned for Friday, previously a scheduled day off.

The winner of the best-of-13 series will face defending champion Oracle Team USA in the 34th America's Cup starting Sept. 7. And just about everybody thinks the Kiwis will advance.

"We believe, and I think everyone understands, that we believe that we have a slower boat than them," Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena said. "And to beat them, we have to do everything 200 percent better and they probably need to make some mistakes."

Just completing real races was a major success for the troubled regatta.

Only one boat finished the first three races of the challenger finals. And officials had to call off the second race each of the first three days because of wind that exceeded the safety limit.

With lighter wind and a blue sky, the latest competitions ended almost before they began.

In the first race, Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper moved his 72-foot catamaran too close to the start line. He had perfect inside position but had to pull back so he didn't cross before the clock started, and by the time he picked up speed again, Emirates already had a large lead.

Barker's patient tactic allowed Emirates to hit the start line at full acceleration and leave Luna Rossa difficult air in its path. The Kiwis hit a top speed of nearly 44 knots, or about 50 mph, by the first mark and pulled off several smooth foiling gybes -- when a boat changes direction while sailing downwind and stays on the foils, without the hulls touching the water.

"Momentum goes a long way in these boats," Barker said.

Any chance the Italians had to come back ended when they sailed out of bounds on the left side of the course while the Kiwis were extending their lead upwind foiling toward the Golden Gate Bridge. They received a two-boat lengths penalty, though they took even longer to reach full speed again.

The next competition started about 30 minutes later.

In the second race, both boats got off to an even start. But the Kiwis covered the Italians' every move, foiling far better and far faster to pull away by the third leg of the five-leg race.

Foiling is when the boat is going fast enough to pop up onto the daggerboard in the leeward hull and winglets on the bottom of the rudders and ride over the tops of the waves, its hulls out of the water. That reduces drag and increases speed -- something the Kiwis have been far better at this summer.

Luna Rossa is still winless against favored Emirates when the Kiwis' catamaran is functional.

The Kiwis went 5-0 against the Italians in the round-robins, including the opener that Luna Rossa boycotted because of a rules spat. The Kiwis twice beat the Italians by more than 5 minutes, and the closest margin was 2:19.

The current course is three legs shorter than the one used during the round-robins. But at this point, the difference between the two boats -- when operational -- remains the same.

"If we go out and sail the best we can, we feel pretty good about things. We know our boat's good, it's pretty quick. We knew our crew is slick," Emirates grinder Chris McAsey said. "If we're on our `A' game, we're pretty confident for sure."

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