Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

America's Cup: Walking Team New Zealand's Green Mile

Skipper Dean Barker gracious and dignified in defeat as despite gallant effort by Kiwi team, dream of triumph turns to disappointment in San Francisco

It's a lonely vigil for Kiwi fans (above) as Emirates Team New Zealand lift their boat into the water. Photo / Brett Phibbs
It's a lonely vigil for Kiwi fans (above) as Emirates Team New Zealand lift their boat into the water. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It was the eerily quiet, almost sombre, atmosphere as the team launched their boat yesterday morning that hinted it was all over before it began.

The team base, usually a hive of energetic bustle, was quiet and contemplative as the shore crew went about the tricky business of lifting the boat into the water ahead of the 19th and deciding race of the 34th America's Cup match. It was a historic day for the 162-year event - never before has there been a series so competitive that has gone right down to the wire. And yet there was no sense of history in the making at the Team NZ camp. Only sporting tragedy.

In the earlier days of the regatta when the "plucky Kiwis" as they are often referred to in the US media were setting the pace in competition, the public viewing area just outside of the perimeter fence of the team's base was packed with supporters clapping and cheering as the team launched their boat. Yesterday, there were just two lone Kiwi supporters keeping vigil, solemnly waving flags, while a handful of curious onlookers, mainly locals, came and went.

As they have done for the past 84 days since the start of the Louis Vuitton challenger series, the shore crew went about their work launching the boat in the water. Only this time there was a sense of foreboding. It was almost as if the boat was being prepared for its funeral.

By the time the boat was in the water, and the sailing crew emerged, the energy levels had picked up. The wider team and their family and friends gathered dockside to cheer the team as they set off from their base at pier 30-32, about 2km further down the road from the America's Cup village.

Each day, before they head out on to the racecourse, the teams take part in the dock-out show, where they are announced up on stage at the village as if they were rockstars and are asked a series of inane questions by an impossibly cheerful announcer.

It is a painful experience at the best of times for the crew, who would prefer just to get out on the water and race, but it is a necessary evil in the new increasingly commercial era of the America's Cup.

"We're just going to go out there and give it our absolute all," said Barker, almost robotically, when asked how the team were approaching the epic decider. And with an apologetic nod and a wave, Barker and the crew left the stage, and headed back to their boat.

"He's like a deer in headlights," one of the Oracle fans chuckled.

Barker's body language contrasted starkly with that of the arrogant and cocksure Jimmy Spithill.

"The wolf pack's fired up and we're ready to go. The boys have told me they'll be in full beast mode today," said Spithill.

As Spithill took on the persona of an NFL line-backer and dished out his embarrassingly over-the-top pre-race sermon, a crowd of New Zealand supporters gathered at the edge of the pier, performing a haka for the Kiwi crew as they docked out. It was a gallant effort, but 20 or so middle-aged white guys attempting a haka was more comical than motivational.

A much better attempt was the 3m-long sign that was unfurled as the team left, which read: "It's not over yet. We believe."

If it wasn't over then it certainly was by early on in the upwind leg, when Team NZ's narrow lead at the bottom mark was quickly gobbled up by the impressive Oracle boat. Back on shore, there was a sense of resignation among the Kiwi supporters - Oracle were just too bloody quick.

The Oracle team were well into their celebrations by the time the Kiwi team crossed the finish line 44 seconds later. The team looked shell-shocked as the realisation sank in that their Cup dream - the goal they had worked towards for the past two and a half years - had fallen agonisingly short. They just needed one more point. One more measly, but frustratingly elusive, point.

Slumped over the helm of NZL05, Barker looked bereft, while around him his crew offered one another half-hearted pats on the back as they withdrew inside their own heads for a moment.

"Dean's taking it pretty hard - a lot harder than I even thought he would. He's pretty emotional right now," said syndicate head Grant Dalton.

But Barker, a study in stoicism throughout the regatta, returned to the presentation stage 30 minutes later, gracious and dignified in defeat. He offered his genuine congratulations to the Oracle team, spoke about his pride in his own team, but choked up when he thanked their family and friends for their support.

"The support for this team means more than you will ever know. All we can say is thank you for the belief."

Back at the base later than evening, long after the boat had been hauled out of the water, the mood remained sombre and reflective. Dotted around the courtyard various members of the team gathered in twos or threes, having a quiet drink and talking about anything but what might have been. Others sat alone, staring off into space. As Barker says, the loss is, and will remain for some time, hard to swallow.

"We're just so sorry we couldn't do it for New Zealand," said grinder Rob Waddell.

"This isn't supposed to happen, the good guys are supposed to win."

- NZ Herald

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