By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge suffered a mechanical breakdown in the third race of the America's Cup challenger finals on Monday, handing Emirates Team New Zealand a point and deepening concerns about the fragility of the high-tech AC72 catamarans being used in this year's version of the venerable regatta.
It was the third consecutive race in which a mechanical malfunction crippled one of the competitors and handed a victory to the team that managed to cross the finish line.
On Monday, a line used to control the 130-foot (40-meter) wing sail on Luna Rossa's yacht broke, slowing the boat to a crawl. As the Italian sailors fought unsuccessfully with winches to control their boat, New Zealand extended its lead and won its second point of seven needed to win the Louis Vuitton Cup.
A second race scheduled for Monday was canceled when the winds exceeded a limit put in place to make the AC72s less dangerous. It was the third postponement due to weather in the past three days.
On Saturday, New Zealand captured the first point in the Louis Vuitton finals despite a near-capsize that sent two crewmen overboard. The Italian team dropped out of that race because of a damaged daggerboard.
Then on Sunday, a malfunction in the electronics used to control critical hydraulic systems forced New Zealand to give up mid-race, allowing Luna Rossa to win its first point. The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup will sail against defending America's Cup champion Oracle Team USA next month in the world's oldest sporting trophy.
"It is getting massively frustrating," said Luna Rossa grinder Giles Scott. "The racing has been almost governed on who can get around the course as opposed to winning the races."
In races leading up to the Louis Vuitton Cup finals, New Zealand's polished crew handily outsailed Luna Rossa. But the last three races served as a reminder that both teams are just one big mishap away from disaster.
"To have had three races where basically there's a breakdown every race is a little unusual. But having said that, the boats are a lot closer to the limits," said New Zealand team grinder Chris Ward. "It's like a Formula One car - something small goes wrong and it stops you."
When software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle team won the America's Cup in 2010, it gained the right to set the rules and choose the venue, the windy San Francisco Bay, for this year's competition.
Ellison's team came up with the AC72 yachts, which can hydrofoil across the waves at 50 miles per hour. But the risks of the twin-hulled boats came tragically to the fore in May, when a sailor was killed in the capsize of an Artemis Racing AC72.
Oracle is favored by many to successfully defend this year's Cup, partly because it has two boats ready to sail. But in a practice race on Sunday, a rudder sheared off of one of them, sending the yacht to the shed for repairs.
Luna Rossa has only one AC72, while New Zealand has a second boat that is currently not in sailable condition.
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Eric Walsh)