By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand outsailed billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA in the first day of the America's Cup finals with near collisions and a man overboard as the high-tech catamarans crisscrossed San Francisco Bay in the first close-fought duels since the regatta began two months ago.
Maneuvering his 72-foot carbon-fiber yacht at speeds close to 45 miles per hour, Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker aggressively cut off Cup defender Oracle's boat several times to win the first two races in the best-of-17 final series.
Already hobbled by a cheating penalty, Saturday's results make it even harder for Oracle to defend the Cup it won in Valencia, Spain in 2010 and brought to San Francisco.
The final series of matches is the culmination of a regatta plagued by controversies including cheating by Oracle, dangerous catamarans, a fatal accident and accusations of mismanagement.
Fans along the shore at an America's Cup park on San Francisco Bay cheered the Kiwis as their AC72 catamaran crossed the finish line with a lead of nearly a minute in the day's second race.
Seconds before the first race, an Oracle crewman fell overboard, leaving his team to compete with only 10 sailors. New Zealand began that match with a small lead and was passed by Oracle for a short time before regaining its lead and winning by 36 seconds.
"Hopefully we can take some races and not have passes and just win," Oracle tactician John Kostecki said at a post race press conference, when asked if the boats were evenly matched.
In pre-start maneuvering of the second race, the two boats appeared to touch each other as Oracle went for a controlling position just downwind of the Kiwis. Even a light collision could have cost New Zealand a penalty, but none was called.
Saturday's was the first suspenseful racing in the regatta after two months of relatively tame qualifying matches easily dominated by the formidable Kiwis.
The latest setback for the America's Cup came on Tuesday, when an international jury docked Oracle two points - the equivalent of two races - and kicked three team members out of the event for adding illegal weight to boats used in a previous preparatory Cup competition.
The penalties, unprecedented in the history of the 162-year-old event, are a big boost for New Zealand, which demolished other would-be challengers in qualifying races in July and August.
Bookmakers see the Kiwis as favorites to take the America's Cup from Oracle although, in a twist of fate, they are now up against one of their country's most accomplished sailors.
Due to the penalty, Oracle needs to win 11 races to retain the Cup, while New Zealand only needs to win a total of nine. With Saturday's two victories, New Zealand now needs seven more.
Oracle is also sailing without a key crew member, Dirk de Ridder, a 40-year-old Dutchman who was banished from the event for his role in the weight scandal.
The cheating debacle first came to light in July, when 45-foot Oracle catamarans that had been used for a regatta known as the America's Cup World Series of Racing - and were raced again last week in a youth competition - were found to have illegal bags of lead and resin wedged into their frames. Adding weight can help improve the yachts' stability.
In most countries, sailboat racing is a niche sport, and this year's America's Cup so far has done little to change that. Ellison, who won the cup in 2010, and with it the right to set the rules for this year's races, hoped to make the competition more accessible to everyday sports fans with super-fast, high-tech 72-foot boats called AC72s sailing close to shore on the picturesque Bay.
But the regatta stumbled from the start, with high costs scaring off many challengers and a fatal training accident in May throwing the four-team competition into chaos. Mounting a serious challenge in the America's Cup costs $100 million or more, a pricey entry fee even for billionaires.
Sailing is not a big draw for US sports fans and the turnout in viewing areas set up along the Bay to watch the races has fallen short of expectations, with few local residents showing interest in the regatta, let alone rooting for Oracle.
But the sport is a major sport in New Zealand. New Zealand's crew is made up entirely of people from that country, while Oracle Team USA's crew has only a smattering of Americans.
New Zealand first won the Cup in 1995 and then successfully defended the Cup in 2000 under the leadership of Wellington-born skipper Russell Coutts.
Coutts was lured away by Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli to take the helm of Alinghi. He took the Cup from New Zealand in 2003, then switched to Oracle and helped that team win the Cup in 2010, and he continues to lead the team. He has won the America's Cup four times and never lost.
New Zealand skipper Barker's aggressive starts against Oracle were foreshadowed by his scrappy pre-start tactics against Italy's Luna Rossa in qualifying races leading up to the finals.
On the water on Saturday, Oracle's catamaran was skippered by Australian James Spithill, who also skippered Oracle's boat in its 2010 Cup victory.
"The boats are very close and tomorrow's another day," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said after the races.
(Additional reporting by Alden Bentley)
(Editing by Alden Bentley)