It was a day of endings on Rhode Island Sound -- great endings and near endings.

One of the most stirring America's Cup races in anyone's memory ended with the stouthearted British sailing a crippled boat and only seconds away from final elimination from the cup, snatching victory not from the jaws but from the very belly of defeat by the French.

The British boat Lionheart trailed France 3 to the absolute end of the 24.3-mile course but in a stunning reversal, sneaked under France 3's stern 50 yards from the finish and bore for the line, eking out a victory so close the race committee called it "less than a second."

But the win, unlike the brilliant clear skies Newport basked under today, was clouded. Lionheart and France 3 collided earlier on the course. Damage was minor, but both boats flew protest flags.

Late tonight the race committee ruled in favor of the British and let the victory stand.

If the French had won the protest, it would have marked the end for the British. They trailed the best-of-seven semifinal series with the French, 3-1, when the race went off today. A protest loss would have sent them home.

Elsewhere in brisk northern breezes on the sound, Dennis Conner's Freedom, the boat that observers are coming to call "the machine," wiped out defending cup champion Ted Turner's Courageous in three straight races, which left cup watchers wondering if this is the end for Turner.

"I don't know," said the Atlantan when he returned to the dock, "something could always happen. A sea monster could swallow Freedom up. They could be hit by lightning. An atomic war could start."

Turner looked weary of it all. "The main thing I wanted to do here is come back to see my old friends. It's not the end of the world, you know. It's not war.There'll always be another sailboat race next week."

But when Turner was asked if he'd ever mount another cup campaign, he offered this certain ending: "Not on your life."

Conner now has won five straight races in these final trails to select a U.S. defender for the cup races, which start Sept. 16. Turner and Russell Long, with Clipper, have won only one apiece, against each other.

It was a crowded and exciting scene on the sparkling water as still another race found the Australians and the Swedish boat Sverige battling. The Australians seemed to have that race in hand when they experienced trouble at the masthead for the second straight racing day. That problem cost them victory. Their mainsail bagged, they fell behind and never recouped. Now their best-of-seven series with the Swedes stands at 2-2.

But the thriller of the day was France 3/Lionheart. It was a race so thrilling that after it was over British project manager Peter Buchanan could scarcely speak. "It was the most exciting finish I've ever seen in any kind of sailing anywhere," he said.

It very nearly didn't happen at all.

The Britons broke their boom on the way to the starting line. The metal was shredded where boom meets mast. With their backs to the wall, the British asked hurriedly for a lay day to make repairs, which was denied by the race committee.

Then they asked for a two-hour postponement, but the French said no, which they had the right to do. Nonetheless, British syndicate manager Tony Boyden called it "unsportsmanlike, particularly where life could be involved."

The British were afraid the boom would shatter in racing and smash a crewman. Ever brave, they lashed the torn metal with ropes and set out, anyway.

They won the start, then lost the lead in stunning fashion at the first weather mark when French skipper Bruno Trouble sneaked his tricolor yacht under Lionheart in a daring, close-quarters move.

On the second weather leg, the boats collided and the protest flags came out. The race went on.

By the start of the last leg, France was booming along with a lead of close to a minute. But the French tacked and their jib flew out of control. A winch had collapsed, they later explained.

The British, seeing the dilemma, tacked and bore off. The French were unable to follow in their debilitated state.

Each time the French tacked to the port side, they lost control, and when it came to the finish they needed one last tack to seal the win.

They came through the wind, the jib fluttered too long then filled. The French made for the line seemingly dead even with Lionheart.

Both boats came up and shot for the finish. As they crossed the line, a gun sounded, but even those in perfect observation spots could see no distance between the two. Yet there was no doubt who won by the look of the crews. The Englishmen heaved fists to the sky, cheering.

Later, each side claimed it was in the right on the protest. Boyden maintained the French boat "bore down on us," forcing the crash.

French skipper Trouble said the British luffed up and struck his stern.

Lionheart bore scratches and swaths of peeled paint on her port bow. France 3 had black Lionheart streaks on her starboard stern quarter.