By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A blunder on Tuesday that led to a commanding victory for Emirates Team Zealand and prompted Oracle Team USA to call an unusual time-out in the 34th America's Cup regatta might have cost sailor John Kostecki his job.
The 49-year-old American was nowhere to be seen when software magnate Larry Ellison's team got back on its 72-foot catamaran for a practice run on Wednesday after Tuesday's devastating loss. Acclaimed British sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, who has been at the helm of Oracle's second yacht during training matches, took his place.
Oracle representatives did not immediately respond to calls and emails asking for confirmation that Ainslie would replace Kostecki as the tactician when Oracle again faces Team New Zealand for two races on Thursday.
The government-backed Kiwis have won four of the nine races they need to take the Auld Mug, as they call the silver trophy, back to their tiny, sailing-crazed island nation. Because of a jury-imposed penalty, Oracle must finish first in 11 races - two more than New Zealand.
Ainslie, 36, has won four Olympic gold medals and is considered one of the most decorated sailors of all time. Though Oracle flies the American flag, the loss of Kostecki would leave only one U.S. sailor on the team, trimmer Rome Kirby.
All but two of the Kiwi sailors hail from New Zealand.
Oracle was winning the race on Tuesday when it tried to do something that has never before been done - to lift its foils out of the water while tacking. But the team bungled the maneuver, almost stopped dead and gave up an eight-second lead.
Criticism was also heaped on Oracle for heading to the right side of the upwind leg near Alcatraz Island to escape current, allowing the Kiwis to use better wind in the center of the course to get ahead.
The team used a so-called postponement card to skip the second race of the day. Skipper Jimmy Spithill said Oracle would return to the water to figure out how to make the hard-to-handle twin-hulled yacht move faster before two races scheduled for Thursday.
Asked at a post-race press conference if Kostecki would be fired, Spithill said, "I can't guarantee anything. I can't guarantee I'll be there."
An international jury expelled Kostecki's brother-in-law, first-choice wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder, after finding he and other team members illegally modified smaller, prototype boats used in warm-up regattas.
Kostecki grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay and is said to have been hired as Oracle's tactician because of his insider knowledge. Asked at a press conference on Sunday if his local knowledge had given him a leg up on the Kiwis, he replied, "I think these guys know the Bay pretty well."
(Editing by Alden Bentley)