AP Sports Writer
Three days into qualifying races and there’s already a controversy in the America’s Cup.
A thrilling showdown between two of the top challengers turned on a penalty Monday, leaving one crew fighting to keep its 50-foot foiling catamaran from tipping over, and the other crew dumbfounded.
A few hours later, the chief umpire released a statement saying the officials blew the call.
Emirates Team New Zealand beat Artemis Racing after the Swedish team was penalized turning onto the last leg Monday on Bermuda’s Great Sound.
Artemis was flagged for a port-starboard violation and had to slow just as it approached the finish line after a short reach across the wind, allowing the Kiwis to win.
There were protestations of “no way” and “completely rubbish” on the Swedish catamaran, which is crewed mostly by Australians.
Turns out their protestations were spot on.
In a statement, Richard Slater, the chief umpire for the independent America’s Cup Race Management, said officials “have had a discussion, we have looked at other evidence, information and data, and I think if we were to go back in time and make that call, we would green that call and not penalize Artemis.”
Once a call is made, it can’t be changed.
“It was obviously a pretty good race, such an epic battle, really, the whole way around,” said Artemis skipper Nathan Outteridge, an Aussie. “I’m sure Pete and the boys enjoyed it as much as we did, probably a bit more at the end there.”
Outteridge felt Artemis gave the Kiwis enough room.
“We were a bit shocked when the blue light came on,” he said.
There were stunned looks on the crewmembers’ faces after the finish.
Slater said that as the boats were approaching the gate mark, “our job is to be certain that Artemis Racing were keeping clear, and we weren’t at that time certain they were keeping clear.”
Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Peter Burling said the Kiwis were looking to set up a port-starboard at the mark, but didn’t expect it to be so close.
Coming in at high speed, Burling dropped the catamaran off its foils and buried the starboard bow in the water to slow down.
“We were pretty lucky we didn’t end up on our side,” he said. “At 40 knots, you need room.”
“We thought it was pretty tight, but we were happy with the outcome,” Burling added. “Like any sport, you’ve got to play to the whistle.”
It was one of the most exciting America’s Cup races in years. Artemis also was penalized for being over the start line early. Still, there were nine lead changes on the seven-leg course.
Artemis and New Zealand don’t have to wait for a rematch. They face off again in the opening race of the second round robin on Tuesday.
Earlier Monday, British sailing star Ben Ainslie, who leads Land Rover BAR, lost his fourth straight race. Land Rover BAR had a bad mark rounding halfway through the race and Groupama Team France went flying past and won by 53 seconds.
New Zealand finished the first round robin with four points, one behind two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA.
Struggling Land Rover BAR has three points, followed by Artemis, SoftBank Team Japan and Groupama Team France with two points apiece.
One challenger will be eliminated after the second round robin, which wraps up Saturday.
Ainslie would be in real trouble if not for bringing in two bonus points earned during preliminary regattas.
This is the first time the defender has sailed against challengers in the preliminaries. If Oracle wins the qualifiers, it will carry a one-point bonus into the first-of-seven America’s Cup match beginning June 17. After the round robins, Oracle will practice on its own while the challengers sail their semifinals and finals.
Artemis looked strong in practice racing earlier this spring. It’s looking to bounce back from the death of Andrew “Bart” Simpson in May 2013, when its 72-foot catamaran broke apart during a training run on San Francisco Bay.
The Kiwis are looking for redemption after blowing an 8-1 lead on match point in the 2013 match, when Oracle Team USA won eight straight races to retain the Auld Mug.
The Kiwis sacked skipper Dean Barker and replaced him with Burling.
Besides being top challengers, the Artemis and Team New Zealand sailors are familiar with one another. Outteridge and fellow Artemis crewman Iain Jensen won the gold medal in the 49er class in the 2012 Olympics, with Burling and fellow ETNZ sailor Blair Tuke taking the silver. At Rio last summer, Burling and Tuke won the gold, with Outteridge and Jensen taking the silver.
In the last race of the round robin, Barker steered SoftBank Team Japan to a 2:34 rout of France.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson
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