“The America’s Cup is still New Zealand’s Cup!”
I watched this happen from a spot on the floor under a table in the art room. My art teacher, obviously a fan, had all the races playing on a TV in the corner, but sitting on the floor was the only place I could hear the commentary. Also a perk for the final race, it was the only spot I could avoid being seen by the Year 11 art class I was several years too young to be a part of.
That cup came at a formative time in my life. I had just started at a new school where I did not fit. Obsessed with sport, I embraced the Louis Vuitton and America’s Cups with the fervour of a child who wanted everything to be a story.
But it was fine then – for those months, everyone was into the America’s Cup. I remembered the red socks from five years before. Every day that Team New Zealand raced, I wore red socks under my school socks. I believed the lore – I believed with all my heart that red socks mattered.
In the art room I sat on the floor because I needed to hear the sailing. The grinders spinning, the mast tightening, the whole boat groaning as it prepared to tack, as taught as a bowstring while the sailors tried to get as much speed out of every manoeuvre.
Masts, I knew, could snap. Spinnakers could explode in half. In those noises it felt like watching a team riding a beast that could turn on them in a second, but the only way to win was to push that beast as far as possible.
For weeks in my suddenly-lonely school life I stared out the window during maths class, wishing I had a radio so I could listen to the racing, to the boats. Imagining the drama of Luna Rossa, trying to scrape a plastic bag from their hull, the rod whipping back and injuring a sailor, his blood spilling down the side of the boat.
I have never been sailing. My family was not a sailing family. We played rugby and hockey and if we competed on water, we were rowers. But those months of racing caught my imagination so fiercely I have written this entirely from memory.
It was Francesco de Angelis, tall and handsome, standing at the helm of Luna Rossa. It was Russell Coutts, handing the wheel of NZL82 to Dean Barker for the final race, like the end of a fairytale, passing on the mantle.
I remember wishing so badly that I could be in Auckland. Be there to see the boats, join the crowds, feel the excitement.
It’s 2021 now. And I’m in Auckland. And I’m not excited at all.
I would like New Zealand to win. But as Coutts proved when he turned against his protégé and went to Alinghi – there are New Zealanders everywhere in sailing. We exported them. Interviews from Valencia all came tinged with Kiwi accents.
And we aren’t Team New Zealand anymore. We’re Emirates Team New Zealand. We’re a brand. A syndicate. Even the advertising has abandoned red socks.
Watching this Americas Cup makes me sad. Because there isn’t that feeling of a boat there. Nothing for a kid with no idea what yacht racing is – but who recognises sailboats and drama – to grab onto, and to dream about.
The races are straight line sprints with nothing like the tacking and gibing battles of the days of mono-hulls. In 2000, sailors could have spit from bow of one boat to broadside of the other. In 202 I’m not sure the sailors can even see their competitor.
Two months ago The American Patriot almost sank. The catamarans of the last few cups could flip with surprising ease. And a little research tells me Americas Cup racing is still a hugely physical experience. But as a spectator now, it’s impossible to tell, even with all the graphics on-screen providing breakdowns for the work rate of each sailor.
The wind speed is measured by computer, not by someone perched atop the mast. The obvious teamwork is confined to coordinated scurrying from one side of the boat to the other. Nothing like the breath-holding moment after the crew left their posts to haul metres of fabric into position, when the spinnaker unfurled, and the boat sprinted downwind.
I can’t imagine staring out the window at work wishing I had a radio. There’s nothing to hear in the sailing. Nothing to picture. The commentators will tell you who has won – whoever has two seconds lead at the start of the race.
To anyone with a real understanding of these yachts, this piece probably reads like someone harking back to the hours that Bruce McLaren raced to win Le Mans in a Ford. I know engineers who work for ETNZ – they are brilliant technicians with surprising minds.
But the McLaren F1 team doesn’t pretend to be a Kiwi team, and if it was a two car race on an oval track, Formula 1 wouldn’t capture the imagination either.
There’s no need to tell me the Cup when we first held it wasn’t pure sailing either. No need to point out I’m romanticising the past – because I know I am, that’s the point. The first time we hosted the America’s Cup felt romantic. This return to the Hauraki Gulf feels impersonal and sterile.
Maybe the race is purer now, a battle of telemetry, with the startling minds all along the chain being the real difference.
But it’s also the difference between a video game and a fairytale. The good ending is still the same – except one plays out on your screen, and the other lives on in your head.
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