Sailing: Team New Zealand hit top gear to level America's Cup at 3-3

Emirates Team New Zealand (right) competes with Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli during the 36th America's Cup in Auckland, on March 13, 2021.
Emirates Team New Zealand (right) competes with Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli during the 36th America's Cup in Auckland, on March 13, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - Holders Team New Zealand roared back to beat Luna Rossa and make it 3-3 in the 36th America's Cup match off the coast of Auckland on Saturday (March 13), after the Italian challengers dominated the day's opening race.

TNZ hit speeds of over 40 knots in the second race to cross the line in 27 minutes and 27 seconds, a minute and 41 seconds ahead of Luna Rossa, to the delight of most of the roughly 15,000 fans on the quay and some 2,000 spectator boats.

"That was a good one, to have the boat speed like that," TNZ flight controller Blair Tuke said. "The big speed difference was pleasing and like yesterday, a really good reply from the guys. A good way to finish another tight day.

"There's still a lot to do; it's a tight battle."

It was the perfect response from TNZ, who lost the first race by 18 seconds after a poor start in which they were forced to delay and could not get up on their foils. The Italians led throughout following a starboard entry to finish in 29:05.

It was the first time in the match a team had managed the feat after the previous four races were won by the vessel that started from the port side.

TNZ skipper Peter Burling said he was happy with his team's effort despite the disappointment of the first race.

"We improved the way we sailed (in the first race) to keep it within 20 seconds... within that one mistake margin, but Luna Rossa didn't give us a chance," Burling said.

But Luna Rossa, who excel in light winds, failed to build on their advantage and co-helmsman Jimmy Spithill was left to rue a slow start that cost them the second race.

"We were happy with our positioning; unfortunately we got caught in a light spot and couldn't get the boat going back to the line, almost a reversal of the first race," Spithill said.

"Not a lot of passing lines from then on," he added. "It's a bit of a minefield out there from the start box and we couldn't get the boat to accelerate."

Spithill added the teams were pleased to be racing in front of supporters, with Auckland easing Covid-19 restrictions.

"Back in Italy, they're in lockdown. So the fact we can go out there, it's a privilege," he said. "But we're also pushing as hard as we can. Let's hope this one goes down as one of the great fights out on the water."

The teams face off in two races again on Sunday in the best-of-13 series for the oldest trophy in international sport - the 170-year-old "Auld Mug" - with stronger winds predicted.