“The America’s Cup is NOW New Zealand’s Cup!”
25 years ago Peter Montgomery’s classic line echoed across the country, realising the moment that New Zealand had claimed international sport’s oldest prize and a dream hatched a decade earlier.
We’d gone into that regatta with a resolve that had been hardened by events over those 10 years. The first challenge in 1987 off Fremantle had seen us pitch up with the revolutionary fibreglass KZ-7 – dubbed “Kiwi Magic” – that won 37 of its 38 races under the helm of Chris Dickson, only to lose to American Dennis Conner in the challenger final series. The following year saw the “Big Boat” challenge, which descended into a farce when Conner opted to use a catamaran and cemented his reputation as a cheat who’d stop at nothing in Kiwi minds (the saga was eventually decided in a New York courtroom in the defenders favour). And in 1992 off San Diego we’d been on the brink of making the Cup match itself before Italian rivals Il Moro and its backer Raul Gardini successfully appealed the use of a bowsprit on the nose of NZL-20.
By now it wasn’t a case of thinking could we win the Cup but what, or who, would stop us.
The 1995 challenge was a new era. Michael Fay, who had bankrolled the previous three attempts, had gone and the effort was now “Team New Zealand”, under the management of Peter Blake. Two new boats registered as NZL-32 and NZL-38 and named Black Magic I and II respectively were built. Russell Coutts would skipper the efforts on the water, and early signs were promising with NZL-32 considerably faster than the previous generation NZL-20 in sea trails.
Once the Louis Vuitton challenger series got underway it was clear that Black Magic II was the class of the field; on the water it was unbeaten but in shades of the previous campaign one in the first round-robin was taken away under protest. One of those wins was also achieved without crossing the finish line; in their third contest with their nearest challenger – One Australia under John Bertrand – came one of the most remarkable moments in Cup history. In their primary boat, AUS-35, they were pushing TNZ hard in heavy seas when the hull broke and plunged to the bottom of the Pacific within two minutes.
For the semi-finals TNZ sprung a surprise; they switched boats to NZL-32 which defied conventional thinking. Reality was that it was evolutionary design, and the team had been developing it in practice outings when the competitors focus was on -38.
But all this took money, and despite the success there was a significant problem; they were rapidly running out of money and their financial backers – the ‘family of five’ – were unwilling to commit more.
By this time Blake had taken to wearing red socks given to him by his wife Pippa onboard and superstition demanded that he kept doing it. The winning streak continued until race 4 of the challenger series finals when tendonitis forced Blake and those socks off the boat. TNZ lost to OneAustralia, who had significantly improved their other boat AUS-31 after the lost of -35, that day but it spurned one of the greatest marketing campaigns this country has ever seen. If you didn’t have a pair of ‘lucky red socks’, were you a real Kiwi? Truth be told it was a poor start that caused the loss that day but the money it raised was badly needed.
The Australians were dispatched, setting up a showdown with old rival Conner in the best-of-nine Cup match. True to the persona we had of him, Conner had actually lost in the semi-finals of the defender series to billionaire Bill Koch’s all-women’s crew on America3 but had gotten them and John Marshall’s Young America to agree to a three-way final. That came down to the last day, and Conner only got through when the wind died, and he was able to sneak past America3. But the old dog wasn’t done with his tricks yet; concluding that Young America was the best boat to take on Black Magic he did a deal with Marshall to charter the boat for the defence.
The nerves were palpable on the morning of 7 May 1995, as NZL-32 and USA-36 entered the start box for the 29th America’s Cup match. After all we’d faced Conner – “Mr America’s Cup” – twice before and lost while his right-hand man was Paul Cayard who’d skippered Il Moro in 1992, and they easily won the start. But those nerves were eased before the first turn as Coutts and crew simply sailed past the Americans and away to win by nearly three minutes.
Two days later it was over 4 minutes, the heaviest defeat an America’s Cup defender had suffered to that point.
The next day it was 1:51. Then 3:37 in race four, after which Cayard said he felt like he was delivering a yacht rather than racing it.
So…. May 14 1995 our time. A nation waits with unprecedented anticipation what they hope will come next. The first four races have been a procession and today should be the coronation. And it was, as that hope turned to realisation as Black Magic cruised around the course to win race 5 by a minute-50 and with it claim the Auld Mug.
We all felt part of the scenes we were seeing on TV, the joy, the elation, the relief. And we could all understand and enjoy when Blake delivered one of the great responses at the post-race press conference.
That emotion was replayed with the parades in the main centres, the likes we’re unlikely to see again anytime soon, and the realisation that we’d actually done it set in.
That Cup, the Auld Mug, was now in little ol’ New Zealand.
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