No plain sailing for Kiwis
Sunday Star
- 2 March 2003

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AHOY THERE: Alinghi's SUI-64 hoisting its sail at the Hauraki Gulf in Auckland, New Zealand. The Swiss team is set to become the first European outfit to win the America's Cup competition.

NZ love affair with America's Cup coming to an end


AUCKLAND: It just takes two boats - and a nation goes nuts. But it's not just any boat. This is the America's Cup, the holy grail of the sailing world. And this is New Zealand, where sailing-crazy Kiwis claim they have saltwater in their veins.

It was Race One and Race Two of the best-of-nine event at the Hauraki Bay with Team New Zealand up against Switzerland's Alinghi.

Auckland is known as the City of Sails and one of the best things to have happened to them was Team New Zealand winning the America's Cup in San Diego in 1995 and successfully defending it in her waters three years ago.

Having the highest boats-to-a-person ratio in the world, Auckland's maritime industry received a massive boost when they basted the 2000 and 2003 Louis Vuitton and America's Cup challenges by virtue of being the cup holders.

Such is the ferocity of the support from locals that they have adopted the tagline "Loyal" as Team New Zealand's battle cry for the 2003 Cup defence.

The "Loyal" campaign is also a jibe against the members of the victorious 2000 team who have been lured away by the other big syndicates with more lucrative offers.

However, New Zealand's eight-year love affair with the Cup is heading to an end this week. And what makes it more painful for the Kiwis is that the lethal blow will be delivered by one of their favourite sons - Russell Coutts, the winning Team New Zealand skipper in 1995 and 2000.

Arguably the best yachtsman New Zealand has produced, the 41-yearsold Coutts literally jumped ship to Swiss debutants Alinghi after the 2000 campaign.

And Coutts is just one race away from winning a third consecutive title as Alinghi lead Team New Zealand.

Coutts has equalled American Dennis Conner's all time America's Cup record of winning 13 American Cup races and could surpass it in the fifth race and is set to break the hearts of four million compatriots.

Coutts and the five other New Zealanders who joined him aboard Alinghi, which has 11 different nationalities on its deck, have found themselves being ostracised by their compatriots to the extent of receiving death threats and needing security personnel at the pier.

Following the break up of the previous team, the Kiwis were forced into rebuilding, with 29-year-old Dean Barker being handed the wheel to spearhead the defence of the Auld Mug.

Unlike the "Billionaire's Club" boats like Alinghi, which is funded by biotechnology magnate Ernesto Bertarelli and Oracle by the fourth richest man in the world Larry Ellison, the Team New Zealand challenge is backed by the people of New Zealand themselves.

The estimated budget of NZ$80 million (RM168 mil) for the 2003 campaign, which is said to be about just half of what the other big syndicates spent, was raised through the combined efforts of -the government, sponsors, suppliers and the public.

Buildings, houses, lamp posts, buses, taxis and T-shirts adorned with the "loyal" logo have filled up the city to show unyielding support for the black boat.

But the loyalty has been hit by the boat's frailty. When Race Four, which was postponed six times over 10 days, was finally held on Friday, the mast of Team New Zealand's boat broke, forcing them to hand Alinghi a second walkover.

The first walkover was conceded in the opening race when an estimated six tonnes of seawater poured into the boat to cause multiple gear failures.

Luck also deserted Team New Zealand when they lost Race Two on the final straight after leading at four of the six turns while Race Three was gone at the starting point when the Kiwis set off on the left side while Alinghi took advantage of favourable wind conditions on the right.

And when the boat came in with the sail trailing in its wake, it was like a sad announcement that New Zealand's hold on the trophy was over.

Alinghi could have finished them off yesterday. But Race Five was postponed. And the end could come today.

And next year, the race could go to Monaco or Lisbon. The Swiss, after all, do not have an ocean bordering their land.

But their boat is set to be the first European winners of the America's Cup.

Ever since the schooner America trounced a fleet of British yachts to win the first race in 1851, the Europeans have yet to lift the coveted trophy.

Now seems like a good time.