New Zealand's Cup

America's Cup, seen by many here as a billionaire's boat race, looks very different Down Under, with its culture of sailing and maritime innovation

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Emirates Team New Zealand sails in San Francisco Bay
GETTY/EZRA SHAW

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A few weeks ago I was walking down the dock in the marina where I live, in Wellington, New Zealand, when I passed a woman and a young boy. I'd never seen them before, which is uncommon here in this municipal marina — about 100 boats — in a small suburb of the country's capital.

The boy was walking from berth to berth pointing out certain rig and hull features and expounding on them as only a future aficionado can. "Lots of different boats, huh?" I asked as I passed.

"Different than America," he confirmed in an accent the same as mine.

The kid is sharp, I thought, or maybe it's just obvious, even to an eight-year-old from Chicago. The New Zealand sailing scene is vastly different than its American counterpart, which is not to say there's no comparing — they're not exactly navigating carved logs with gunnysack sails down here.

But the boats in my marina are, in fact, mostly homebuilt from steel, cement, aluminum, and wood. They appear a motley crew compared to the cookie-cutter production fiberglass Beneteaus, Catalinas, and Hunters, with their identical pacific blue sail covers lined up in San Francisco's South Beach Marina.

In New Zealand, a boat is rarely a status symbol — it's part of the middle-class way of life, the home base for holidays and weekend fishing trips and lots and lots of competitive racing. If I've noticed one thing since I arrived in this country (aboard a sailboat, after leaving San Francisco and my job as a Bay Guardian staff writer), it's that every little harbor town has a yacht club and an awful lot of Kiwis own boats — and they sail the shit out of them.

Which is part of the reason why the New Zealand government is willing to invest NZ$36 million (US$27 million) to compete in the 34th America's Cup against some of the richest men in the world in a race that has become so elite there's barely any competition.

Small as the field is, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) is quickly shaping up to be the team to beat if you're on a high-speed, air-catching AC72 catamaran. If they succeed, it will show that developing an America's Cup team doesn't have to come from having deep pockets in your Nantucket Red pants — it comes from having the sport ingrained in your culture, filtered through affordable local boat clubs, city-run facilities, volunteer programs, publicly accessible shorefronts, and an innovative marine industry.

In fact, without New Zealand's maritime way of life, Larry Ellison wouldn't have much of a team: of the 27 sailors and management crew aboard Oracle, a third are Kiwis. Another third are Australians. If you count Ellison, there are only three Americans aboard. Just one of them — tactician and grinder John Kostecki — grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay.

Ellison's boat is mostly a Kiwi production, too — the fixed-wing sails and structural components for Oracle's two AC72s were made in New Zealand, as were the boats, sails, and rigs for ETNZ and Luna Rossa. The only other syndicate competing, Sweden's Artemis, in the wind since the death of crewmember Andrew Simpson, is the outlier, but they still have eight New Zealanders on board.

America's Cup is looking more and more like it owes a lot to New Zealand. Is the Cup doing as much for San Francisco as it is for this little island nation, with a population just a tenth of California's?

"If it wasn't called Team New Zealand, we wouldn't get a lot out of it," says Sven Pannell, a competitive dinghy racer and employee of the economic development agency Grow Wellington. "The numbers of boat builders, carbon fabricators, sail makers, yacht designers coming out of New Zealand are the reason we're still at the top of the global game. If we can bring the Cup home that means a lot for our country."

It may also save America's Cup from becoming even more out of touch with reality.