SAN DIEGO -- While reigning America's Cup champion skipper Jimmy Spithill spent a gorgeous afternoon proving he's human, France's Energy Team surprisingly edged two sailing powerhouses to come out on top after the opening day of the third stop of the new America's Cup World Series.
Energy Team, skippered by Yann Guichard, finished third, fifth and first in Wednesday's three fleet races to score 24 points and claim the top seed for the match racing championships. Emirates Team New Zealand, the overall ACWS leader coming into the San Diego regatta, was second with 23 points, while Oracle Racing-Spithill was third in the nine-boat fleet with 22.
"It's a perfect day for us," said Guichard, who up until now had been the syndicate's alternate helmsman.
Energy Team, Team New Zealand and Oracle Racing -- Spithill clinched the top three seeds and moved directly into the match racing semifinals on Friday. The other six teams begin match racing eliminations on Thursday.
It was the first America's Cup racing in the United States since Russell Coutts and Team New Zealand lifted the Auld Mug from Dennis Conner off San Diego in 1995. Coutts is now the CEO of Oracle Racing, which is owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison.
Sailed in fast 45-foot catamarans with wing sails, the ACWS is the buildup to the 2013 America's Cup, which will be sailed in 72-foot cats on San Francisco Bay.
Dean Barker skippered Team New Zealand to finishes of second, third and fifth. Spithill, who skippered Oracle Racing to two-race sweep of Alinghi of Switzerland in 2010 to claim the America's Cup, had a rough day on the starting line but managed finishes of fifth, fourth and second.
Spithill was over the line a split second early in the first race and had to do a slow-and-go penalty. He then was penalized for an infraction at the start of the third race.
"We had pretty much every light going off in the boat today, from OCS to penalty. I thought Christmas had come early, to be honest, just without any presents," Spithill said.
"Obviously we struggled off the start line," he added. "Out of the three races we broke two starts and found ourselves in last position twice around the reach mark. But I think one thing we really focused on was being able to sail well from behind. That certainly wasn't my game plan today but we were able to put it into play and it came off. We've done a lot of work with our sails. I felt we were fast but just a very ordinary day for me on the start line, really."
Spithill said it was a great start for the regatta, which followed ACWS stops in Cascais, Portugal, and Plymouth, England.
"It was a just a fantastic day. I think this is the perfect day for San Diego; you get 10-12 knots, pretty consistent breeze with the sun out. If we can get a few more days of this, I think we'll be able to put on a really good show."
Spithill's new teammate, fellow Aussie Darren Bundock, skippered Oracle Racing -- Coutts to victory in the first race. As part of a crew rotation, the two-time Olympic silver medalist replaced Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner, at the helm for this regatta. Sweden's Artemis Racing and its American skipper, Terry Hutchinson, won the second race.
Artemis is seeded fourth, followed by Team Korea, Oracle Racing -- Coutts, Spain's Green Comm Racing, France's Aleph and China Team.
"It's a big surprise for us tonight but we sailed really, really well," Guichard said. "My team has done a fantastic job. I'm getting more comfortable with the boat each day and I can really feel the boat well now. We had some good starts and were very fast today. The small teams like us are improving each day."