The cup that does not cheer San Diego ... has become all the rage in Kiwi country

With its huge TV ratings, sailing has become New Zealand's unlikely obsession. David Barber reports from Wellington
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The Independent Online
New Zealand has a new sporting obsession. Despite the imminence of rugby's World Cup, the normally refined world of sailing has consumed the nation - an interest entirely fuelled by the country's remarkable success in the America's Cup. And as far as most New Zealanders are concerned, it is already red socks in the sunset for Dennis Conner.

Ever since the Team New Zealand skipper, Peter Blake, revealed that he had never lost a race in the challenge for the America's Cup while wearing his lucky red socks, they have become compulsory footwear for most of the country.

The one day in 38 starts that Team New Zealand lost, Blake was not wearing them. New Zealand sock factories have been working overtime for the last fortnight after a campaign was launched asking New Zealanders to wear a red pair every day Black Magic has been on the water at San Diego.

Half the price of every NZ$10 pair (about £4.20) has gone to the Team New Zealand cause and 100,000 have been sold in the last 10 days - making a half- million dollar windfall for the challengers. Even the Queen's representative in New Zealand, Governor General Dame Catherine Tizard, along with her dog, posed for photographs wearing red socks, as did the Prime Minister, Jim Bolger.

The socks campaign took off after the Kiwis won the Louis Vuitton challenger's cup to revive flagging interest in an event many had seen until then as a long drawn out rich man's sport. Winning the right to challenge for the America's Cup ignited interest and Conner's victory to defend the "auld mug" inflamed it. The 4min 14sec win in the second race drew "Slaughter on the water" headlines and Black Magic's hat-trick brought near national hysteria.

There is no one New Zealanders would prefer to beat than Conner, universally dubbed "Dirty Den" here and described in one editorial as "the marine equivalent of Freddy Krueger ".

Live television coverage of each race, which starts at breakfast time in New Zealand, has drawn 85 per cent of the viewing audience, and employers have complained about workers not turning up until mid- morning when each race finishes. Those that do go to work on time follow progress of the race on car radios. Bus and train commuters are glued to transistors.

Pedestrians linger on the streets watching televisions in store windows. Once at work, little is done until the race has been relived. Every landlubber has become a yachting expert, debating tactics, sea and weather conditions at length. Highlights of the race are re-screened that evening's prime- time news bulletins, brought up to date with interviews with Blake and other Team New Zealand members.

Throughout each race day, radio programmes are dominated by lengthy interviews with commentators in San Diego and listeners phone in their comments, regularly vilifying Conner.

Dawn parties are a regular feature for yacht clubs throughout the country on race days and pubs are opening early to feature TV coverage on big screens.

Customers queued at one pub in Christchurch to throw darts at a huge "Dirty Den Dart Board" featuring a sailing Conner with a black kiwi in his fist.

Every race is front page news, and commentators have frequently accused Conner of having little concept of honour and fairness, warning readers to beware of protests and legal trickery before he concedes defeat. A pre-race attack on Conner by Blake, who said, "I don't think he is a role model I would want my children to follow", met with universal acclaim.

The government sees a New Zealand win as providing a massive boost for the economy when the cup is defended in Auckland, which has long called itself the City of Sails, and there are already signs of a boom in harbourside property.

With the cup's eventual destination a foregone conclusion in most Kiwi eyes, the coverage yesterday focused on interviews with businessmen and others in San Diego and Fremantle, Australia seeking information on the social and economic impact of an America's Cup holder.