As the lads are tuning up for the challenger series that is due to start in early July, Team New Zealand is the odds-on favorite to win the right to go up against defender, Oracle Team USA, in the races for the Auld Mug in September. It would be David vs. Goliath if it plays out that way, but count on the small guy to put the best foot (or fist?) forward.

Team New Zealand

The New Zealand team is foil-borne and at speed in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz island is in the background. Photo credit: Emirates Team New Zealand

A National Affair

Boats and water have more significance for people who are conscious about living on a remote island, so to the Kiwis the America’s Cup is more than a regatta that tries to emulate NASCAR. It’s a matter of national concern. Most of their sailors are native New Zealanders, so it’s easy for fans to identify with them. Of course, expectations run sky high and big wins or heartbreaking losses cut across gender, age, and social boundaries. It’s a bit like soccer in Brazil.

Bringing the Cup back to Auckland would be balm for Kiwi national self-esteem and it would help the economy at large. The marine industry, especially, has high hopes. It’s the country’s largest non-food manufacturing sector, employs about 8,000 workers, and generates 1.7 billion NZD in revenue.

Which brings us to the topic of funding the AC campaign. Unlike the other syndicates who have billionaire backers in the tradition of Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Lipton behind them, Team New Zealand had to dial for dough. Led by managing director Grant Dalton they rustled up cash from multinational corporate sponsors who are footing the lion's share of the bill for this adventure. But there’s also a component that sends the heads of free-market advocates spinning: The Kiwi government chipped in north of $30 million. “This team is a brand ambassador for New Zealand,” is how one official explained it on my recent visit in Auckland. “It’s great advertising, and bringing the Cup back would produce measurable economic benefits.”

Rooted in History

New Zealand was one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans, and for the longest time the islands could only be reached by boat. For those who came to live here, survival depended on seaborne trade. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that nautical prowess and the zest to beat others to the punch are stitched into the collective DNA. But this tradition goes farther back, because centuries before Dutch, British, French, Spanish, or Portuguese explorers left their footprints here, Maoris from Central Polynesia had traveled across vast stretches of ocean with dugouts and outrigger canoes to set up shop in these islands.

Strolling around the famous Viaduct Basin, past the landmark “Big Boat” from the Kiwis’ unsuccessful Cup challenge in 1988 and into the Voyager Maritime Museum, I got a glimpse of how the Kiwis’ multicultural seafaring past is reflected in their quest for the America’s Cup, which could be seen as a surrogate battle fought by warriors in canoes.

New Zealand monohull

Under the belly of the beast: The Big Boat that went down in defeat to Dennis Conner's catamaran in 1988. Photo© Dieter Loibner.

For the Maori people, building a war canoe, a “waka taua,” was a community effort. It took a village to carve hull sections from totara or kauri trees, then join and lash them all together with flax fiber before adding a top strake for more effective freeboard. The largest of these war canoes were about 100 feet in length and carried up to 100 men.

Mick Cookson

Kiwi boatbuiler Mick Cookson. Photo ©Dieter Loibner

The Maori also added ornate carvings and painted their boats in dark red, a color they derived from red ochre or burnt karamea clay and shark oil, and black, which they made from powdered charcoal, shark oil, and sap. If you look at Team New Zealand’s present-day waka, the AC72 catamaran, as it zips across San Francisco Bay riding on its foils, you won’t detect intricate carvings by boat builder Mick Cookson, who calls them the “ultimate bit of kit."  But the color scheme, by chance or by design, stayed the same.

A Guy They Love To Hate

With the Artemis campaign still in limbo after the tragic accident that led to the death of crewmember Andrew Simpson, and the Italians of Luna Rossa fielding only one boat, this Cup has been struggling to deliver on the lofty promises that were made. So a strong Kiwi challenge, one that will make this a boat race worth watching, is of vital interest to the organizers, who fear nothing more than a pullout of Artemis or another catastrophic capsize by any competitor that could render the selection series “an even more ridiculously reduced event,” as Dalton pointed out acerbically.

bow carving

Carved bow ornament for a war canoe. Photo©Dieter Loibner

But if carrying the expectations of a whole nation on their shoulders wouldn’t be motivation enough for the Kiwis, they also have Russell Coutts to gun for. He’s the man they love to hate down there. He won the Cup at the helm of Team New Zealand in 1995 and defended it for them successfully in 2000. But when he defected to the Swiss Alinghi Team with some of his closest associates to lift the Cup from his home country in 2003, it felt like treason to more than a few. Then he joined Oracle and helped return the Cup to America from where he once took it. Now he is overseeing a defense that in all likelihood might pit him against his Kiwi mates.

Sure, Oracle has issues, too. The capsize of their AC72 last fall cost them practice time while the boat was in the shed for extensive repairs, which also forced a change of plans for their preparation program. But they have deep pockets, the most prominent sailors, and the largest design team. And they enjoy home-field advantage. “It’s still a yacht race and anything can happen,” says Cookson, leaning back after coffee and cake in the conference room of his boat yard in Auckland. “You’d have to say that Oracle should win. But you’d also have to say that there’s a reasonable chance of Team New Zealand beating Oracle for the America’s Cup.”

And that would only be just for a country that takes sailing very seriously and sends a team with the expectation that it can win it all.