A decade since their last America’s Cup victory, Team New Zealand are out for revenge against some familiar foes, says Bernie Wilson in San Francisco
Ten years after Team New Zealand lost the America’s Cup to a countryman and a European billionaire, the Kiwis are in San Francisco for a singular mission.
They are not here for the spectacular vistas, although the pier that houses their base is in the middle of one, tucked between the western end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark.
Head out on to the bay, turn left, round the Embarcadero and there are Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is on the stretch of water between those landmarks that the New Zealand team hope to reclaim the oldest trophy in international sport. “The only reason we’re here is to win the America’s Cup,” their skipper, Dean, Barker, admitted. “For us the stakes are quite different this time. Anything other than that will be a failure.”
The first two races of the 34th America’s Cup are today against defending champions Oracle Team USA, which is owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp and led by Russell Coutts, who won the first two of his four America’s Cups while skippering Team New Zealand.
The New Zealanders love being David v Ellison’s Goliath, although they lost some of the underdog aura when an international jury docked Oracle Team USA two points and banished their wing sail trimmer Dirk de Ridder. That means the Team USA must win 11 races to retain the America’s Cup. Team New Zealand must still win nine to take it back to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland, where it resided from 1995 to 2003.
But they are still the gritty band of sailors representing a small, sailing-mad island nation of 4.4 million people. Team New Zealand relies on substantial funding from the government, which makes losing unacceptable.
“It’d be very difficult for the team to survive, in my mind. It won’t be me who’ll be doing it,” said Grant Dalton, a 56-year-old who serves as both managing director of the syndicate and one of the grinders on the high-performance 72-foot catamaran.
After Oracle Team USA was penalised on Tuesday, their skipper, Jimmy Spithill, said the American syndicate was the underdog based on losing De Ridder four days before the first race. The New Zealanders still believe they are the underdogs.
Dalton said the build-up to the racing is playing well Down Under and that national pride “is very intense. It’s taken a little bit of time for pick-up this time. They enjoy watching these boats, and the David-Goliath thing, little New Zealand versus the might of America, the superpower, they like that.”
Dalton has not been shy about launching zingers at Ellison and Coutts, the CEO of Oracle Team USA. Last spring, he tweaked Ellison because the billionaire’s grand vision for this regatta failed to materialise. When it was revealed that Oracle Team USA illegally modified prototype boats in warm-up regattas, Dalton was quick to say the San Francisco-based team had cheated.
“I just fundamentally disagree with Coutts about where they think the America’s Cup should be taken,” Dalton said. “It’s just a difference of opinion.”
If Team New Zealand lifts the Cup off Ellison, “yes, there would be big changes,” Dalton said. “We’ve said publicly we believe in nationality and cost reduction. After that, everything else is on the table.”
Of the 15 sailors on Team New Zealand – it takes 11 to sail the boat – there are 13 Kiwis and two Australians. By comparison, Oracle Team USA’s starting 11 include only two Americans, John Kostecki and Rome Kirby. There are four Aussies, including Spithill, two Kiwis and one each from the Netherlands, Italy and Antigua.
Dalton said ETNZ’s budget was about $100m. That includes commercial sponsors, five or six individuals and $36m in government funding that began with the 2007 America’s Cup. Oracle Team USA is largely funded by Ellison, whose fortune is estimated at $43bn.
“It would be totally impossible to commercially fund a team against these guys,” Dalton said. “You couldn’t do it. It should be commercially fundable. That’s the whole point. But it isn’t.”
Dalton came to the rescue of Team New Zealand after its nightmarish loss in 2003. The New Zealanders had dominated the previous two America’s Cups. Led by Peter Blake and Coutts, they swept Dennis Conner in five races off San Diego in 1995 to become the only country other than the United States to win the Auld Mug. They successfully defended it with a five-race sweep of Italy’s Luna Rossa in 2000.
For the 2003 America’s Cup, Coutts and a handful of his top mates jumped ship for big pay cheques from the start-up challenger Alinghi of Switzerland, backed by the biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.
Team New Zealand was a shipwreck, literally. Its sloop broke down in the opening race of the America’s Cup match and nearly sank. In the fourth race, its mast cracked in two and tumbled into the Hauraki Gulf. Coutts and Alinghi sailed to a 5-0 victory and the trophy went back to Europe for the first time since Britain lost it to the schooner America in 1851. Dalton, who had done several round-the-world races by then, met Barker after the devastating loss.
“I guess my basic instinct was it was just such a shattered wreck that I felt as a Kiwi yachtsman, for myself and for New Zealand, that it just couldn’t end that way,” Dalton said. “It should never end that way, and it was going to end that way so the opportunity came to take over the team, so that’s why I came in.”
Dalton had to raise money, and one of the sponsors he landed was Emirates airline. That is why the words “Fly Emirates” are so prominent on the 131-foot wing sail.
Initially, he was told that the only two sports the airline did not sponsor were motor racing and yachting because they were “too unreliable”.
“That wasn’t a great place to start, but they said, ‘If you want to come up...’ I got a few air points,” said Dalton, who flew to Dubai and closed a deal.
“I got to know them, got them to buy into who we were and what we wanted to achieve and they said ‘Yes’. They’ve been with us for 10 years.”
Team New Zealand reached the America’s Cup match in 2007, losing 5-2 to Alinghi. It earned the right to face Oracle Team USA by beating Italy’s Luna Rossa in the Louis Vuitton Cup final last month. Now they just need to finish the job.
Ruling the waves: Sport’s oldest trophy
* The America’s Cup dates back to 1851 and is the oldest active trophy in international sport. It pits two yachts against each other in a best-of-17 race series, with the winner earning the right to choose the venue and format of the next running of the event.
The race is between the yacht club which holds the cup and a challenging club. This year, the competition is between Team New Zealand, who are taking on defenders Oracle, with a fortnight’s competition beginning in San Francisco today.
The sides will compete in state-of-the-art 72ft catamarans, which have been criticised following the death of British Olympic medallist Andrew Simpson in May when Artemis, the yacht he was crewing, capsized. A host of new safety measures has been put in place as a result and it has drawn attention to the dangerous nature of this year’s competition.