SAN DIEGO -- After training in San Diego for 16 months before winning the America's Cup in 2010, Oracle Racing's sailors are familiar with everything from the wind to the best waterfront bars.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill and his crew used their local knowledge in quickly dispatching Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand in two races in the semifinals of the America's Cup World Series match racing championship Friday on San Diego Bay.
Plus, it helped having the boss in the back of the boat. Billionaire Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corp. and owner of Oracle Racing, rode along in the non-sailing guest racer spot on the 45-foot, wing-sail catamaran.
Spithill, an Australian who lives part-time in San Diego, will face France's Energy Team in the best-of-3 finals on Saturday. Energy Team kept up its surprising run by winning two races against Sweden's Artemis Racing, which is skippered by American Terry Hutchinson.
The ACWS is a prelude to the 2013 America's Cup, which will be sailed in 72-foot cats on San Francisco Bay.
Oracle tested its massive trimaran off San Diego before beating Alinghi of Switzerland in Valencia, Spain, in February 2010 to return the America's Cup to the United States for the first time since 1995.
"It'd be nice if it was a bit windier, but we spent a little time here over the last three years, so it's a bit like coming home for most of us," said Dutchman Dirk de Ridder, who trims the wing sail. "We had a good time here when we were here preparing for the Cup. It's an easy place to fly into, good restaurants, the bars are pretty good as well, we found out once in a while. It's great to be here again."
This is the first America's Cup racing in the United States since Russell Coutts, now the CEO of Oracle's sailing team, led Team New Zealand to a five-race sweep of Dennis Conner off San Diego in 1995.
The new catamarans replace the plodding sloops that were used in the America's Cup from 1992-2007.
The wing sails, which look and operate like airplane wings, replace traditional soft-sail rigs. They're an offshoot of the radical, 223-foot wing sail that powered Oracle's trimaran in the 2010 America's Cup. De Ridder trimmed that wing in the America's Cup, although he said it was easier because it had an engine to aid the process.
The wing sail on the 45-foot catamaran "is creating a lot more lift than a normal soft sail does, for a lot less load," de Ridder said. "Sailing like today, it would be around three tons of mainsheet tension, vertically, and now we have about 200 kilos of side load to deal with. So the trimming is much more accurate and much more direct than it would be on a soft sail. It's much easier. I like the wing because it's very responsive."
While it was a good day for Oracle Racing in the matchup of heavyweight sailing teams, it wasn't for the Kiwis, the overall series leader coming into San Diego. They were hoping to reach the match racing finals for the third straight ACWS regatta.
Team New Zealand lost to Spithill in the finals in Cascais, Portugal, before beating Team Korea in Plymouth, England.
"We just clearly didn't sail anywhere near the level we needed to today, and against opposition like that, you can't afford to sail badly," Barker said. "For whatever reason, we just had a bad day."
In the second semifinal, Energy Team trailed early in both races before using a similar passing move on the first downwind leg. With Artemis Racing leading toward the course boundary, new Energy Team skipper Yann Guichard was able to gybe his boat inside the Swedish challenger in both races, each time getting a favorable puff of wind at a critical moment to power ahead of Artemis.
"It's a big surprise for us to be in the semifinal today and now we are in the final, so we will enjoy the moment," Guichard said. "I feel the pressure but I like the challenge, so I'm happy to be in the final. I think the competitor in front of me, Spithill, is one of the best ones, so I'm really happy to fight with Spithill tomorrow."
Hutchinson used a football analogy to describe getting passed by the French in the first race. He said it didn't help that his boat had a knot in the gennaker sheet that slowed down the gybe.
"The first race is standing in the end zone, wide open, hitting the guy right in the numbers, and he drops the ball," Hutchinson said. "Yet we picked ourselves up and battled our way back into the race. In the second race, same thing again. We got a great start, had about a four-length lead at the off-set mark, we matched them with a gybe and he got a puff of wind we didn't get. That is the difficult part about sailing. There is a Mother Nature part that sometimes you just can't control. It's way more painful in these boats because they accelerate so quickly, and the guy that gets a little bit more wind takes off."