SAN FRANCISCO --The America's Cup "summer of racing" may have gotten off to a bumbling and controversial start, but on a windy day in the bay Sunday, thousands of spectators enjoyed a front-row seat to the thrill and drama of world-class racing.
Gasps of surprise and worry rumbled across the Embarcadero when a front sail on the New Zealand boat came crashing down onto the trampoline deck of the 72-foot catamaran before the crew cut it loose and sent the rumpled sail drifting into the bay. It was a spectacle one commentator called an "emergency on Planet Kiwi."
Emirates Team New Zealand recovered quickly and still managed to beat Italy's Luna Rossa by more than two minutes, its second victory this month. But the crowd -- conditioned by months of news reports to expect calamity, if not catastrophe, on the race course -- seemed to relish Sunday's accident, which ripped the jib off the front of the boat.
"I love the loss of the jib," said Kirsten Fagnan, 33, a mathematician from Oakland who watched the race from America's Cup Park at the end of Pier 27/29 with a group of friends. "That was absolutely amazing they were able to keep going."
Even 11-year-old Wilson Conn, of Atherton, who watched with his two brothers and parents, had one thing on his mind: "I want to see if it capsizes."
Has the America's Cup come to this -- a gladiator sport?
"It's fast and furious, and you know someone can get hurt," said Summer Gourdine, of Tiburon, who also joined her friends to watch the race on the end of the pier. "You're drawn to it anyway."
This is the first time in the America's Cup's 162-year history that spectators can actually watch the races from shore -- a key feature that persuaded billionaire Larry Ellison to host the regatta in the natural amphitheater of the bay, where spectators can stand almost anywhere along the shoreline and catch a glimpse of the speedy, high-tech catamarans.
When his Team Oracle USA won the America's Cup in 2010, he earned the right to bring the cup home. Traditionally, the races have been held far out to sea and only viewed by those with access to boats or cable TV.
Two prime viewing spots that have been set up for spectators are along Marina Green and at Pier 27/29, where a music pavilion, hands-on exhibits and daily "dock out" shows entertain the public for free. The next race of the Louis Vuitton Cup series is scheduled for 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, with another race planned for the same time Sunday.
The jib accident was the most significant equipment failure of the 34th America's Cup since Sweden's Artemis Racing team suffered a traumatic capsize during a practice run in May that killed a crewman and destroyed its boat. The tragedy delayed the team's entry into the regatta until August and forced the America's Cup race director to impose a lengthy list of safety improvements, including stronger body armor and modified boat rudders.
The Luna Rossa team made headlines earlier this month when it protested the new safety rules, claiming they favored defending champion Team Oracle USA. Not only did the team boycott the first race, but the entire team -- sponsored by Italian fashion house Prada -- refused to attend the exclusive black tie Louis Vuitton Ball during opening weekend, returning 100 tickets to the organizers. That snub resulted in America's Cup organizers filing a protest against Luna Rossa, contending the team violated its obligations.
Are we having fun yet?
Just ask the spectators.
"I think the controversy is also a draw," said Elizabeth Beckner, 29, of Walnut Creek, who watched the sailing action Sunday. "And the sailors are cute."
So very close
But some fans did come for the joy of sailing. Really.
New Zealanders -- known for their passion for sailing -- were thrilled with their team's performance Sunday, beating Luna Rossa by more than two minutes even after the jib mishap. As the catamarans with 130-foot main sails sped in front of the spectators both before and after the race, those lining the end of the pier hooted and waved.
"God, look at that," John Cleland, 71, from Lake Taupo, New Zealand, said as one of the boats flew past.
"There's no words for it. It's so exciting to have them go by so close," said his wife, Gillian Cleland. The couple is in California visiting their son in Napa. "We just feel so proud of the boys."
So far, the New Zealand team had dominated the Louis Vuitton Cup round robin, the series that runs through August and precedes the America's Cup finals, which begin Sept. 7. What was supposed to be 21 days of racing in July, however, was pared down to five when Artemis announced that its new, improved boat wouldn't be ready to race in time for the round robin. The Swedish team's long-awaited launch was expected Monday morning, but the team still needs days if not weeks of practice before it is ready to race. Organizers expect them to join the regatta no later than the Louis Vuitton Cup semi-finals, which start Aug. 6.
Ben Lee, 43, who lives in Fremont and teaches sailing at Cal-Sailing in Berkeley, said he, for one, is ready for some serious sailing.
"Hopefully, we can get past the controversy," he said, "and get on with a very exciting, high-tech race."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.
America's Cup for free:
Where: America's Cup Village at Marina Green. From shoreline, see 75 percent of the race course.
Also: America's Cup Park at Pier 27/29. At end of pier, watch boats cross the finish line. View 25 percent of the course. Watch the rest on giant screen with live comments. Enjoy hands-on exhibits.
Download: America's Cup free app to listen to live racing commentary and audio from the crews.
YouTube: Available on all manner of digital screens.
When: 12:15 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday: Louis Vuitton Cup round robin races between Emirates Team New Zealand and Italy's Luna Rossa. ___