Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Yachting: Why we should care about the America's Cup

While the nation's love affair with the ultimate all-or-nothing contest ended a decade ago, 2013 offers the chance of reconciliation.

Emirates Team New Zealand. Photo / Chris Cameron
Emirates Team New Zealand. Photo / Chris Cameron

If we had to pinpoint the moment when New Zealand's love affair with the America's Cup ended, it would probably be about 50 minutes into race four of the 2003 America's Cup.

Outgunned by Swiss syndicate Alinghi from the start, any hope Team New Zealand could defend the Auld Mug for a second time came to an emphatic end when the mast of NZL-82 exploded in a heap of carbon fibre.

"This f****** boat," came the cry of frustration from one of the crew members. They might also have said "this f****** event".


Our disillusionment didn't just come from a broken rig - the gloss was beginning to wear off long before then. The defection of Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth along with the heart of the team that brought the cup back to New Zealand in 1995, and subsequently defended it five years later, to the Swiss team bankrolled by billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, destroyed the romance for many Kiwis.

While the sport has always been the domain of extremely wealthy men, there was also an element of nationalism. That all changed with Coutts and his cohorts' decision to chase the Swiss francs. As Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton puts it, it was the "end of innocence" for New Zealand and the Cup.


Since then the event has continued down the same troubling canal. Budgets have increased exponentially, as has the complexity of design and engineering requirements, to the point where just three challengers could find the resources to compete in this year's edition.

It is estimated the four competitors have invested a combined half a billion dollars in their campaigns and there is still no guarantee they will all take part, with Artemis at the very least preparing to enter the racing late as they recover from last month's catastrophic capsize, which resulted in the death of strategist Andrew Simpson - a cost no team should have had to bear.

The event has long been criticised as a pissing contest among ultra-rich men - an obscene waste of money given what some social agencies could do with that amount of cash.


There is no getting around it, it is a ludicrous amount of money to spend on a boat race. And yet it is because there is so much at stake that the event holds such fascination.

It won't just be $120 million down the drain if Team New Zealand lose in San Francisco, but the future of one of New Zealand's iconic sports brands. While Dalton refuses to look beyond the America's Cup finals in September, he admits this campaign will likely be the last roll of the dice for the team.

In that respect little has changed since the Cup's origins: it is the ultimate all or nothing game. Back in 1851, when the stately yacht America bested the greatest naval power that had ever ruled the seas to win the Cup, Queen Victoria, in a bit of stiff-upper-lip hopefulness, famously asked who took second place. "Your Majesty," the Queen's counsellor advised, "there is no second." And after September there will be no second chances for Team New Zealand.

Financial and human cost of big cat mean it won't return

Questions were raised over the safety of the AC72 class after Cup defenders Oracle capsized six months earlier. Photo / AP

In the wilds of Milford Sound, where cellphone reception can be sketchy, it didn't take long for the news to reach Grant Dalton.

The Team New Zealand boss was holidaying in the South Island with his family, taking some rare time out before heading to San Francisco where he would be overtaken by the madness of the team's final America's Cup preparations, when his phone started buzzing incessantly.

There had been a serious accident on San Francisco Bay. Artemis had capsized. One sailor was dead, another injured. The Swedish team's boat a write-off.

Dalton's first thoughts were with Artemis and the family, friends and colleagues of Andrew Simpson - the British double Olympic medallist who drowned in the training accident. His second thoughts were of the major implications the "absolutely horrifying tragedy" would have on the event, which had already been marred by so many set-backs.

"I knew at that moment it would mean big changes," he said.

Before Simpson was laid to rest a week and a half ago, a review committee investigating the accident had already proposed a series of sweeping safety recommendations for this year's event.

These 37 points ranged from mandatory safety gear for sailors - including body armour, quick release buoyancy aids and high-visibility helmets - to alterations to the boats.

The most contentious recommendation was always going to be the wind limits, which the review committee has proposed to be reduced to a maximum of 23 knots - down from 33. Having made certain trade-offs with the design of their boat in order to ensure its reliability in the original wind range set down in the Protocol, Emirates Team New Zealand viewed the reduction as a "shifting of the goal posts", but they have come to accept they are fighting a losing battle when the other side plays the safety card.

"We would have liked it to be higher, but we also want to get on with things," said Dalton.

What is of more concern for Dalton is that the teams may use the tragedy to gain advantage by recommending changes are made to the boats.

"It hasn't happened to this point, but it's still there - it sits there below the surface on certain issues," he said.

"We don't believe there is any need for any class rule change. All changes or safety recommendations can be implemented without any changes to the class rule boat."

It was always going to take widespread changes to satisfy the public and authorities that the event should go ahead.

In the emotion-charged days after the accident there were questions of whether the regatta should be canned, with some, including America's Cup veteran Peter Lester, asserting the high-powered but extremely skittish AC72 catamarans were simply too dangerous for racing.

Capable of reaching speeds up to 45 knots, the spectacular wing-sailed catamarans were supposed to bring the America's Cup from the 19th century into the 21st. They were controversial from the start.

Criticism over the new class centred around the astronomical design and engineering costs involved given the complexity of the wing-sail technology, with just three challengers being able to come up with the resources to mount a campaign. But in the wake of Simpson's death, Oracle chief executive Sir Russell Coutts and his billionaire master Larry Ellison were fending off allegations of turning the event into a "slaughtering game", as Patrizio Bertelli, the head of Italian syndicate Luna Rossa, put it.

There had already been questions raised over the safety of the AC72 class after Cup defenders Oracle capsized on San Francisco Bay six months earlier, pitching end over end. Incredibly no sailors were seriously injured, but the accident proved a wake-up call for all the competitors, who began to ramp up their safety measures and practise as best they could for the worst case scenario. For many fans the danger added another exciting element to this new, extreme version of sailing. Others weren't so convinced.

"I ask myself where are we taking the most sought-after prize in our sport when to go racing the crews of these cats, all very young people, have to don crash helmets and body armour, and be equipped with personal oxygen supply in a bid to ensure survival?", commentator Lester wrote back in April.

Dalton said he has never had any concerns over the safety of the boat. Team New Zealand have tested their AC72 in extreme conditions - they were out on the water the same day a tornado ripped through Auckland in December last year - and since their arrival in San Francisco last month have been happily whizzing about in winds well above the revised limits.

"The class itself is not unsafe, decisions that have been made in the design process make the boats unsafe," he said.

The San Francisco Police department and various other authorities are still investigating the accident and how Simpson came to drown under the tangle of wreckage, but the early evidence seems to support Dalton's belief.


Preliminary reports suggest the Artemis didn't capsize because the sailors were pushing too hard or made an error, as was the case with Oracle. The problem was with the boat itself, either faulty engineering or faulty construction. The boat broke apart under sail, folded, then flipped. The boat has had a history of breakages since it was launched in October last year. It had been in and out of the shed numerous times in an attempt to correct those problems, and only recently underwent modifications after practise racing with Oracle revealed their non-foiling boat was well off the pace.

Wired magazine reports that last month, however, the forward beam gave way during a practise run. The two hulls, no longer connected, began sailing in slightly different directions. This caused one hull to snap just forward of the aft beam, and the mast, held up by high-tension rigging connected to the front of the hulls, simply fell over. The boat began to cartwheel, trapping Simpson underneath and drowning him.

The AC72 is a workable class, albeit horrifically expensive, if the design is well thought-out, the construction sound and it is sailed under sensible conditions. The boats may be on-the-edge, but they are appropriate for high-level competition. The fatal flaw in the planning of Coutts and his cohorts was not in the design concept, but the timing of the regatta, which left teams with little chance to get their heads around the new class.

"I'm not surprised someone busted in half, because you can get it so wrong with a catamaran - it's like assembling a treehouse, whereas a monohull is like a big sausage," said Dalton.

"Artemis showed a team that doesn't quite get its numbers right can have a catastrophic and tragic outcome."

You have to have some sympathy for what Ellison and Coutts were trying to achieve. They recognised the event had become stale and needed a radical overhaul if it was to appeal to the modern sports fan. No one can criticise them for wanting to breathe life into the Cup, but they moved too far, too soon.

Now, even if Oracle successfully defend the Cup in September, Ellison's team has lost the bigger game. The whole point was to make an indelible mark on the world's most prestigious yachting event. Ellison promised his "Summer of Racing" would be the biggest, most spectacular sailing event ever, winning over a new generation of fans. The reality is, despite boldly predicting there would be up to 16 teams competing when he unveiled his grand plans for the event back in 2010, this year's challenger series will be the smallest in modern history.

Coutts has acknowledged for some time the AC72 was an overreach, no matter who wins there will almost certainly be major changes to the size and design of the boat with costs needing to be significantly reined in if they are to attract more competitors.

As Dalton quipped at charity dinner last month, the racing in the AC72s will be spectacular - "enjoy it, it'll be the last time you see them, it's too bloody expensive". And that was before there was any human toll.

Kiwis' Cup future rests on $120m punt

Team NZ
Team New Zealand have led the way with the design development of their boat during much of the build-up for San Francisco. Photo / Chris Cameron

Team New Zealand's future beyond San Francisco all hinges on a $120 million punt.

With the costs of entering the Cup growing exponentially with every event, the 34th America's Cup will likely be Emirates Team New Zealand's last roll of the dice in the quest for the Auld Mug.

Win, and they will host and control the terms for the next event, giving them a chance to rein in the eye-watering budgets that scared off all but three challengers this year. Lose, and the most successful and enduring Cup team of all time will likely expire.

Team NZ are the only commercially funded team competing in this year's edition - but to get there they still had to rely on $36 million of tax-payer money to prop them up. That public money comes with conditions.

For its investment the Government expects Dean Barker and his crew to return home in September with the silverware, and with it the myriad financial benefits for New Zealand's marine, hospitality and tourism industries that would come with hosting the next event.

But the cash injection from the Government, which was grossly unpopular with the public, was seen as a one-time only deal and without it, Team New Zealand recognise they won't survive in the current climate.

"It's really, really hard to commercially fund a team. We're very efficient and have achieved a lot, but how many times can you knock on doors and ask to have another crack at it?" Barker asks. "The only way we can guarantee the future of the team is to be successful in San Francisco."

The America's Cup has always been a high stakes game, but with Team New Zealand's entire future on the line in this year's regatta, the pressure on Barker is amplified 10-fold. Yet the team's success in San Francisco will really be determined by one factor - did they get the design right?

History has shown that whenever the event has moved to a new class of boat there has been a bolter - one team has interpreted the design rule better than the others and produced a far superior boat. With each edition the boats generally move closer together in terms of design and speed, having learned from the example of their successful predecessors.

It is already apparent Artemis got their design horribly wrong, and with Luna Rossa effectively sailing Team New Zealand's first-generation boat, the Kiwi team are the favourites to meet Cup defenders Oracle in the final.

It won't be until the two boats face off in September that we will find out which team cracked the brief.

"Someone will have got it right, someone will have got it wrong," Grant Dalton says simply.

For much of the build-up Team NZ have led with the development of their boat. But since their capsize on San Francisco Bay last October, Oracle have made up ground fast.

Dalton appears nervous about the speed of the Oracle boat, mentioning its speed in several interviews of late.

Whether they are the words of a man who is trying to talk up his team as underdogs, or one who sees his $120 million investment slipping away, we won't know until September.

The New Zealand public have always found the eye-watering budgets involved with competing in the America's Cup distasteful, but how much will it cost the country if we are not a part of it? And we look at what the future of the event might hold if Team New Zealand wins the famous trophy in San Francisco.

- NZ Herald

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