Paul Lewis: Oracle regatta brings 'unique' NZ unity

Team NZ's efforts-drew in not only people who had no previous interest in sailing but also people from different walks of life. Photo / Getty Images
Team NZ's efforts-drew in not only people who had no previous interest in sailing but also people from different walks of life. Photo / Getty Images

In a strange way, Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison and archrival and Oracle Team USA chief executive Sir Russell Coutts have played key roles in the reviving fortunes of Emirates Team New Zealand.

The syndicate's skipper, Dean Barker, says he, boss Grant Dalton and most other ETNZ people thought they were "done" as a team after OTUSA pulled off that spectacular, gutting comeback to defend the America's Cup.

Ironically, says Barker, the "amazing" support in New Zealand for a beaten team at least partly came about because of Ellison's and Coutts' much maligned vision of 'a summer of sailing' in the compelling AC72 catamarans. The well-publicised capsizes, the death of Andrew Simpson, the much-criticised danger and on-the-edge nature of the boats (with Dalton doing some of the most vociferous criticising) saw only three challengers turn up and, of them, only ETNZ were able to foot it with Oracle.

Dalton's views were accurate enough-the boats were too expensive and the danger and advantage OTUSA had in handling the big cats was enough to put off challengers. The Louis Vuitton regatta limped along with one-boat "races" and no sailing at all on many days.

"There's no question that unless the Cup match [between OTUSA and ETNZ] was what it was, the 34th America's Cup probably would have gone down in history as one of the most under delivered events of all time," says Barker.

"But the vision of Larry Ellison and Russell came together in the Cup match-only just and only just in time," says Barker of the close racing that provided such a gripping spectacle.

"In a lot of ways, the regatta itself was like Oracle's performance-they came together late in the piece and, unfortunately for us, just in time."

The racing and the rollercoaster fortunes of the two teams captured the imagination of many and Barker agreed that was at least partly down to the spectacular performance of the big cats.

"Personally, if I'm totally honest, I still can't quite get my head around it," says Barker.

"We have been subject to the most amazing support, given we didn't win. I still find that hard to understand."

He says a lot of people told him that the event-and Team NZ's efforts-drew in not only people who had no previous interest in sailing but also people from different walks of life, age groups, cultures and political divides.

"It turned out to be something that somehow drew people together," he says. "It became a unifying thing, for some reason. We on the boat just thought we were going out on a sailing race but the drama and tension of it obviously got to people. I have never seen anything like it before. It's unique, even if I don't quite understand it."

"Certainly our feeling internally after the Cup match was that it was all over. Our feeling was that if we didn't win, the team was done. But the reaction here and internationally was so remarkably strong that we began to feel that, even if we didn't win,maybe the brand and the team were strong enough to carry on.

"Grant Dalton, Shoeby [ETNZ chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge] and myself started to feel this was something that we shouldn't give up. We stopped thinking that we didn't have a future because we hadn't been successful and started thinking that, at the very least, we should give it a decent nudge."

Dalton, in particular, has benefited from the up swelling of public and Government support.

He leaves next month on a fundraising trip that has taken on a different hue from the original proposition that Dalton was doing his duty by setting up what financial support he could before deciding on his own future (or lack of it) with TeamNZ.

"He was definitely done at that point," says Barker. "But just seeing what it [the Cup campaign] has done for a lot of New Zealanders has been really amazing for him, I think. He's very much enthused, given all the support from within New Zealand -and it's given him more energy and motivation."

- Herald on Sunday

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