By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Italy's Luna Rossa sailed into the final of the America's Cup challenger series on Saturday, completing a 4-0 sweep over the grief-stricken Swedish syndicate Artemis.
Needing to win Saturday's fourth race at San Francisco Bay to keep the best-of-seven semi-final series going, Artemis made a great start, taking the early lead with their high-tech 72-foot catamaran.
But their joy was short-lived when they were penalized for touching the Italian boat during the pre-start. The penalty led a television cameraman to call the Swedish team, which lost its teammate during a May training exercise, "jinxed."
Artemis landed two more penalties for sailing out of bounds during the race, effectively ending their hopes of winning and allowing Luna Rossa to cruise to victory by two minutes and 11 seconds.
With the win, Luna Rossa advanced to the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup against Emirates Team New Zealand.
Their best-of-13 series, which will decide the challenger to compete against defending champion Oracle Team USA for the America's Cup, starts August 17.
The Kiwis easily defeated Luna Rossa in the round-robin preliminary series to go straight through to the final, but Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper said the Italians were performing better now.
"We've improved tons," Draper said. "We've all seen that the Kiwis are very, very solid. These boats are pretty humbling. Fingers crossed we can be as competitive as possible."
Software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle team won the Cup in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules and choose the venue, the windy San Francisco Bay, for this year's competition.
For Artemis, Saturday's defeat marked the end of a tragic campaign. British Olympic gold medalist Andrew "Bart" Simpson was killed in a training accident on May 9.
The accident destroyed the Artemis boat and wing. The team had planned to sail a second catamaran but changes had to be made to it, a new wing had to be built, and the crew needed to feel safe again.
Consequently, the team skipped the round-robin stage and almost missed the entire event.
"It's been a terrible period for the team," Artemis skipper Iain Percy, Simpson's teammate and best friend, said. "We destroyed all our equipment. We had a huge amount of work to do.
"I'm still in disbelief about how well our team has done. For us to be out there racing was our victory."
(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Julian Linden)