March 2 2003
As I write this, it's exactly 10 years ago.
And I'm willing to bet that in the Halsey Street, Auckland compound of Emirates Team New Zealand - the country's elite sailing team - they're well aware of the anniversary too.
Because on that day 10 years ago, this proud sailing nation was humiliated.
Having held yachting's top prize, the America's Cup, for seven years, Team New Zealand was beaten in such a way that it looked like the end of the team’s existence.
A small, under-funded outfit from the bottom of world, which had set the benchmark for the Cup in terms of boat design, speed and teamwork, was a shell of its former self.
From heroes to zeroes
I’ll spare you the technical details, because sailing is a surprisingly technical sport.
But the short story is that after Team New Zealand successfully defended the America’s Cup in 2000, it began to fall apart.
A disagreement over how the team should be managed prompted the core of the sailing team to leave, to help set up a new Swiss syndicate called Alinghi.
And then when it came time to defend the Cup again in 2003 – ironically against Alinghi with all its Kiwi sailors – a series of design “innovations” left Team New Zealand with a dud boat.
In Race One of the best-of-nine finals NZL-82 took on water and her headsail broke free from the deck. In Race Four, the mast snapped. And in Race Five, the pole holding the massive spinnaker sail in place… well that broke too.
A 5-0 drubbing. A national embarrassment. Some people in New Zealand like to point to the America’s Cup as a ‘rich-man’s-sport’ which they’re not really interested in. But the fact is the population was totally behind Team New Zealand, as they had been in 1995 and 2000, and there was no doubt that this loss hurt the country’s pride.
It took the mettle of a Kiwi sailing legend, round-the-world sailor Grant Dalton, to save the team.
Installed as managing director, Dalton appeared to grab Team New Zealand by the scruff of the neck and pull it back on its feet.
He retained the sailors he could, and then went outside of New Zealand to look for backing. Team New Zealand had always been proud of it’s home-grown ‘Family of Five’ sponsors, but Dalton knew the money just didn’t exist in New Zealand to compete against the likes of Alinghi and BMW Oracle.
So whilst the name might have grated for a while, the re-born ‘Emirates Team New Zealand’ was a viable concern thanks to the Dubai-based airline. Other sponsors now include Nespresso, Omega and Spanish shoe company Camper – all part of a new commercial reality.
Dalton took Emirates Team New Zealand to Valencia, Spain for the 2007 America’s Cup. History repeated itself, and New Zealand lined up against Alinghi in the finals. This time the margin was 5-2, but in no way did the Kiwi team disgrace themselves.
They did well, just not well enough.
San Francisco: a new era
And so now here we are, 10 years later.
It’s a completely different scene. Alinghi is out of the picture, Oracle Team USA holds the trophy, and the America’s Cup will now be sailed in monstrous, over-powered 72-foot catamaran yachts.
It was supposed to bring down costs, only the opposite has ended up happening. Now soaring expenses and a global recession have left the Cup with only three challengers, plus the defender Oracle.
But in there once again is little New Zealand.
The team looks strong. Certainly it’s had the least gear failures, so has been able to maximise its sailing programme more than others. Fellow challenger Artemis of Sweden has had to completely overhaul its boat because, well, it’s just too slow and they know it. And Oracle’s boat capsized off San Francisco and needed to be rebuilt.
In fact Oracle’s massive failure is a good reminder of how on-the-edge this brand of sailing is. One little mistake and it’s all over.
Emirates Team New Zealand may well be the best team, but it’ll mean nothing if the boat breaks… again.
And as it happens, when racing starts in July, a man named Dean Barker will be at the helm of the New Zealand boat.
The same place he was during those dark days of 2003.
Surely he will have a longer memory than most.
Photo credits: Chris Cameron/Emirates Team New Zealand.