SAN FRANCISCO — Emirates Team New Zealand is trying to wrap up a spot in the America's Cup match against defending champion Oracle Team USA as fast as it can.
The only thing slowing it down is the weather.
The Kiwis set a race record of more than 54 mph on the new 72-foot catamarans Saturday, sailing swiftly in a strong wind to overpower Italy's Luna Rossa in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals again and move within one victory of taking the challenger series. Officials scrapped the second race because of exceeding wind.
"It's really exciting. You can't help but get a buzz from it," Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said about his crew's fastest race yet. "You don't focus too much on the speedometer because you know you're going fast. There are just different types of vibrations going on, going through different speeds. You definitely know when it's really ripping because the thing feels like it's going to shake itself to pieces."
Two races, if necessary, are planned Sunday.
The Kiwis lead Luna Rossa 6-1 in the best-of-13 challenger series. The winner will face Oracle for the oldest active trophy in international sports starting Sept. 7.
Officials pushed back Saturday's first race about 10 minutes waiting for the big bay breezes to calm. The wind finally dipped down just below the 22.9-knot limit, or 26.35 mph, which is adjusted for the tide.
With a strong flood tide allowing for even faster conditions, the Kiwis crushed the current and the competition more than they ever had before.
Barker guided Team New Zealand ahead at the first marker – just like he has in every race of the series – by moving over the top and quickly getting the high-performance catamaran up on its foils, sailing a remarkable 30 knots (34.5 mph) upwind. The Italians, who thought a stronger breeze could keep them closer, watched the Kiwis build a bigger lead at every turn.
With a win no longer in question, Barker never backed off.
The Kiwis hit 47.18 knots, or 54.29 mph, during the bear-away in a daring and dangerous display of speed and power. The team's previous race record was 44.15 knots, according to regatta officials.
"It's always pretty cool to hear when you've achieved good speeds. But the boat's been a lot faster," Barker said, declining to give the exact speed his team's hit in practice runs.
Luna Rossa also set a personal best of 43.46 knots, though the Italians never seriously contended in the race. Team New Zealand won by 1 minute, 58 seconds.
"Ten years ago, we'd have set the world-speed record today," Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper said. "But we're racing around marks. They're just nuts to sail these (catamarans), a lot of fun. But at the same time, it's frustrating to us as a team. We'd love to be able to get some more time back, but we've gotten a lot better just sailing the boats around the course. Our performance records show we've gotten a lot better, but so have the Kiwis, and they're continuing to improve. It's very, very impressive."
The one Luna Rossa win in the finals of the challenger series came in the second race, when the Kiwis withdrew because the electronics system that controls the hydraulics failed. Team New Zealand called that an odd occurrence and promised it wouldn't be beat by a mechanical mishap again, and so far that's held true – and then some.
Draper said he wouldn't be surprised if Emirates and Oracle reach 50 knots in the America's Cup match, when the wind safety limit will be increased to about 24 knots, depending on the tide.
"It's amazing to see what these boats would do if we do another three-year cycle," Draper said. "You can only imagine. It's just insane."
At this point, Barker is approaching the remaining race as the last chance to prepare for Oracle – racing against itself, and not its current competition. The Kiwis clearly have the boat to beat in the challenger series – and possibly in the America's Cup – and the only drama left is when they'll advance.
Oracle tactician Darren Bundock boasted that his team has reached a higher speed than the Kiwis did Saturday and will be in better position in the America's Cup because it has had closer races in practice runs, though he also declined to give precise figures. But both the Oracle and New Zealand teams agree that the impending final will be a tight series.
"I think they're going to be really good competition for us," Bundock said. "I think come the actual America's Cup, it will probably be the best racing we've seen."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP