Yachting: Two wins for holders Oracle in dramatic start to America's Cup qualifiers

The American flag flying above a sign for Oracle Team USA as the 35th America's Cup began on May 27.
The American flag flying above a sign for Oracle Team USA as the 35th America's Cup began on May 27.PHOTO: AFP

HAMILTON, Bermuda (AFP) - Oracle Team USA rallied to edge out Emirates Team New Zealand on Saturday, as the 35th America's Cup got under way with two wins for two-time defending champions Oracle and a collision involving Ben Ainslie's Land Rover BAR.

The drama unfolded under picture-book skies on Bermuda's Great Sound, where near gale-force winds had prevented the scheduled start on Friday.

For the first time the defending champions are competing in the qualifiers, and Team USA did not disappoint.

They delivered the first of two thumpings handed out to Groupama Team France before taking on New Zealand in a rematch of the 2013 America's Cup - when the US outfit won eight straight races to seal one of the biggest comeback triumphs in sport.

Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill caught New Zealand as they rounded the mark into the penultimate leg and went on to win by six seconds.

A closely fought start launched a fascinating contest that saw Team New Zealand take a 20-second lead at gate three.

But by gate five, Spithill had closed the gap and they came toward the mark virtually side-by-side.

Team USA came out of the turn in front and held on for the win.

"The boys worked very, very hard today," Spithill said. "It was a physical day. A couple of big races. But we're in good shape for tomorrow."

After the first day of round-robin qualifiers Team USA were tied atop the standings with Britain's Land Rover BAR, both on three points.

The British syndicate came into the qualifiers with two bonus points from the America's Cup World Series, from which Team USA brought one point.

They quelled the doubts raised by lacklustre practice race showings with an impressive victory over Sweden's Artemis Racing, but the day would end badly for Ainslie's BAR.

They were penalised for a scary pre-start collision with SoftBank Team Japan and with visible damage to one hull finished 48 seconds behind the Japanese in the final race of the day.

The crash came after four-time Olympic gold medallist Ainslie slammed into Team New Zealand during practice racing last week, costing the Kiwi team valuable time on the water as they made repairs.

He called the incident "unfortunate".

"We had a sideways slip just as Dean (Barker) came in and got the leeward overlap. No one wants that, certainly in our position as we picked up a penalty and the damage. Thankfully, the most important thing is that no one got hurt."

Team Japan tactician Chris Draper said there were "a couple of bruises" among SoftBank crew members and some compression damage to his boat's carbon fibre hull.

But the more serious damage was to BAR - who could have trouble making repairs in time for their scheduled races on Sunday against heavy hitters Team USA and Team New Zealand.

"The boat is pretty badly damaged, with a sizeable hole in the port hull," Ainslie said. "By the time we got to the dock she was on her way down."

In other races, Artemis - whose stock has risen with some impressive practice performances this month - defeated Team Japan by 13 seconds.

New Zealand gained their first point with a dominant victory over France - officially unveiling the bicycle-style grinding system they have installed in place of arm-driven winches to power the catamaran's hydraulics system.