SAN FRANCISCO — Two sailing powerhouses that have spent the summer trading verbal jabs are finally set to meet in the ultimate grudge match — the America's Cup.
Emirates Team New Zealand zipped through a thick fog and past Italy's Luna Rossa again Sunday, capturing the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series 7-1 and advancing to the premier event against defending champion and bitter rival Oracle Team USA.
The best-of-17 America's Cup starts Sept 7.
The Kiwis crushed the conditions and the competition in the challenger finals. The closest margin was 1 minute, 28 seconds, and Luna Rossa's lone win came when Team New Zealand dropped out because the electronics system that controls the hydraulics of its catamaran failed.
The Kiwis won the final race — the lightest wind of the series thanks to a fog that blanketed San Francisco Bay — by the largest margin: 3:20.
"To win the America's Cup, you have to win the Louis Vuitton Cup. And we've come here to win the America's Cup," Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said.
The Kiwis sounded their horn as they crossed the finish line and toasted sparkling wine on the boat from nearby Napa Valley while taking a victory lap near thousands who crowded the corner piers. The crew shared hugs and high-fives, and while they'll have a few days off to celebrate before practicing again, they know there's still more to accomplish.
"We put a ban on long-distance travel. None of the boys are allowed to go to Vegas," Team New Zealand tactician Ray Davies said.
This is the fifth time since 1995 Team New Zealand has reached the America's Cup match. The only time it didn't make it was 2010, which was a one-off between Oracle and Switzerland's Alinghi following a bitter court fight.
Barker believes the challenger series helped his team learn the course and polish its performances, foiling faster — and even upwind — and pulling off more foiling gybes under all kinds of conditions. Oracle tactician Darren Bundock brushed that off, saying his team is better prepared because it has had closer competitions in two-boat practice races — something no other team can do — than anything the Kiwis faced in the challengers.
In a race for the oldest active trophy in international sports, this year's America's Cup offers one of the more scintillating subplots in recent times.
Team New Zealand managing director Grant Dalton, who also serves as a grinder even though he's 56, and Barker both accused Oracle Team USA of cheating after it was revealed the U.S. syndicate illegally modified its boats in the America's Cup World Series, a warmup to this summer's racing.
Russell Coutts, a New Zealander who is CEO of Oracle Team USA, recently told The Associated Press that his syndicate is incredibly motivated because of Dalton's barbs.
"I don't have to give a motivational speech. This team is incredibly motivated to win. This has picked it up 10, 20, 30 notches. They can thank Grant Dalton," Coutts said.
An international jury is expected to rule on the matter this week. Sanctions against Oracle could include a fine, forfeiture of races in the America's Cup or disqualification from the regatta.
Oracle even filed a protest alleging that the Kiwis had trespassed to gather information in the case. Team New Zealand responded that the allegation was "laughable." Oracle withdrew its protest.
Additionally, Dalton and Coutts traded insults at a gala dinner in Auckland earlier this year. Dalton criticized Oracle Team USA owner Larry Ellison because his vision of a grand regatta with a dozen or more challengers fell far short, as the cost of the boats and the perceived peril of sailing them kept several competitors out.
Coutts responded by criticizing Dalton's record and wondering why New Zealand couldn't find someone younger to sail on the boat. Coutts, 51, who won the America's Cup three times as a skipper and once as Oracle Team USA's CEO, doesn't sail on the U.S.-backed boat and didn't sail in the syndicate's two-race sweep of Alinghi of Switzerland in the 2010 America's Cup.
Despite the country each represents, the crews are quite contrasting.
Team New Zealand has a strong national identity, representing a small island nation where people are vastly outnumbered by sheep. Because they rely on government funding, the Kiwis have said Team New Zealand will cease to exist if it doesn't win the America's Cup.
Oracle, by comparison, has a multinational crew, including Australian-born skipper Jimmy Spithill. Only one American, tactician John Kostecki, was on Oracle's crew when it won the America's Cup in 2010.
AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.