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Oracle stays alive as America's Cup plods along
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An America's Cup that continues to see remarkable performances by fast, space-age catamarans is nonetheless plodding along because of a convergence of wind, tide and safety concerns.

Skipper Jimmy Spithill and defending champion Oracle Team USA sped around San Francisco Bay to win Race 12 by 31 seconds Thursday and prevent Emirates Team New Zealand from sailing off with the America's Cup.

Oracle continued to improve sailing the only upwind leg on the course and at one point was foiling at 30 knots — riding only on hydrofoils, with both hulls completely out of the water — as it zigzagged ahead of the Kiwis heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

Shortly after Oracle's big win, the race committee postponed a race for the fourth time in three days because the wind limit was exceeded.

With the Kiwis at match point, Oracle Team USA responded with a dominating performance in Race 12 to pull to 8-2. Although Oracle Team USA has won four races, it was penalized two points in the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year history of the America's Cup. Owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp., it needs seven victories to keep the oldest trophy in international sports at the Golden Gate Yacht Club.

Asked if he's enjoying watching the Kiwis squirm, Spithill, an Australian, said: "I'm loving every minute of it."

Spithill even thinks the American-backed boat — which has only one American on the 11-man crew — can retain the Auld Mug.

"Yes, we can win seven more races," said Spithill, who's been almost defiant since Oracle was hit with the harshest penalties in America's Cup history for illegally modifying its prototype catamarans in warmup regattas called the America's Cup World Series.

Barker is aware of the enormous support the Kiwis are getting back home.

Too many more losses and that can turn into pressure.

"We just continue to do what we've been doing, and we're preparing as well as we can for every day," Barker said. "Today I just made a meal of the start. It was on the back foot, and these guys are sailing well enough that you're not going to get a chance to get past them. We're certainly very pleased with the way the boat's going and everything else, and we know that if we sail properly, we'll give them a decent run."

Oracle Team USA won the start after Barker got too close to the line too early. The Kiwis had to bear away a bit, and the 34-year-old Spithill hooked behind them and into controlling position.

Spithill said Oracle felt the Kiwis had a significant edge upwind at the start of the regatta. But Oracle's design, engineering and boat-building crews have constantly refined the black cat "to where we think we're very competitive around the race track and the guys sailing the boat believe we can win it.

"We've been changing everything," Spithill said. "A lot of stuff. We're doing it constantly. We're learning so much about our boat. The only way to learn it is when you get really pushed, and we're getting pushed. You've got two of the best teams in the world and that's the ultimate way to improve your performance. So every single day we're changing something."

Oracle has also improved its technique in sailing the high-performance cat. Spithill said the sailors are getting tips from syndicate members who watch from chase boats, including team CEO Russell Coutts and John Kostecki, who was replaced as tactician by British Olympic star Ben Ainslie after Oracle lost four of the first five races. Coutts is a four-time America's Cup winner who sailed undefeated through three straight America's Cup matches for two different countries. Kostecki was tactician when Oracle won the America's Cup in 2010 to return to the United States for the first time in 15 years.

"It's very difficult when you're on board the boat a lot of time to see where you can be going wrong," Spithill said. "But with Russell and J.K. and those sort guys it's pretty nice."

Race 13 was delayed because the wind kept popping above the limit of 20 knots. The breeze died down and the pre-start sequence began with both 72-foot catamarans in the box, but then the wind spiked with about a minute to go before the start and it was called off.

Organizers will try to get in Race 13 — and a Race 14, if necessary — on Friday.

The Kiwis, skippered by 41-year-old Dean Barker, reached match point on Wednesday by winning Race 11. Race 12 was scrubbed later that afternoon. Both races Tuesday were postponed On Saturday, Race 9 was abandoned just as the boats turned onto the windward third leg with New Zealand in the lead.

A number of factors are converging to prolong the regatta.

The original wind limit was 33 knots. After British double Olympic medalist Andrew "Bart" Simpson was killed in the capsize of Artemis Racing's catamaran on May 9, the limit was reduced to 23 knots as one of 37 safety recommendations made by regatta director Ian Murray.

The wind limit is offset by the tide. An ebb tide was flowing out of San Francisco Bay at 3 knots before the scheduled start of Race 13, reducing the wind limit to 20 knots.

Some have wondered why races don't start earlier, but the decision to set the start times at 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. was made months ago, in part over TV concerns. That was well before the wind limit was lowered. The wind that whistles in through the Golden Gate Bridge usually continues to build throughout the afternoon, which is why one race gets sailed but then a second race of the day has to be scrubbed.

Spithill said Oracle was rebuffed by Team New Zealand when it sent a letter proposing that the wind limit be raised and that once a race starts, it can't be called off.

Barker countered that when the safety recommendations were being discussed, the Kiwis were in favor of a limit of 25 knots and Oracle wanted it to be 20 knots. The Kiwis felt the 23-knot limit was too low. "But we accepted it. It was a decision Iain took and we were happy to support that.

"It seems a little bit strange that halfway through a series that you think you need to change a wind limit that's been agreed, and previously they wanted a much lower one," Barker said. "Prior to the start of racing, absolutely we would have agreed, but we just don't think it's right to change it during the middle of the event."