Team NZ have again pitched themselves as the little Kiwi battlers outsmarting the big-money syndicate. Can the America’s Cup be New Zealand’s Cup once more, asks Dana Johannsen.

Outside the wire fence of the Team New Zealand compound in San Francisco, two lone Kiwi flagbearers stood silent vigil as the shore crew launched the boat ahead of the 19th and deciding race of the 2013 America's Cup.

It was meant to be sudden death, but it felt more like a slow, drawn-out agony.

A sense of resignation had hung over the New Zealand base for at least a week prior, now they were preparing to sail the green mile.

What began as a jolly romp around San Francisco Bay for Team New Zealand had a dark plot twist in the middle, as the defender, Oracle Team USA orchestrated one of the greatest, most baffling, comebacks of all time.

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The regatta had spanned near-capsizes, numerous lead changes, colourful press conferences, liquor licence renewals, too little wind, too much wind, too-sideways wind, whale sightings on San Francisco Bay, unconfirmed Larry Ellison sightings, daily innovations, and hotel room evictions.

But by race 19 it was clear it would take a supernatural event to stop USA-17 from charging to victory.

As Team New Zealand headed out on to the race course for that final time, one of the Kiwis who had come to offer their stoic, grim-faced support wondered aloud if we were witnessing the final act for one of the most enduring syndicates of the America's Cup.

"I don't know, but it'll be the bloody death of me," her companion replied as the pair trudged away, making the 2km journey along the waterfront to the America's Cup village, where hours later Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill and his "wolf pack" would hold aloft the Auld Mug.

As team New Zealand prepare to have another crack at wresting the America's Cup away from Spithill and co in Bermuda this month, Kiwi fans still wear the same pained expressions at the mention of yachting's most prestigious event.

"I think people were hurt," says veteran sailing commentator Peter Lester, who himself has tasted the pain of America's Cup defeat.

"I remember coming home after San Fran and going down to Pak n Save in [Glenn Innes] and a woman, who I'd never met, came up to me crying. She was still in shock.

Dean Barker relaxes at the team's base after their loss to Oracle. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dean Barker relaxes at the team's base after their loss to Oracle. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"There were a lot of wounded people. Yes, it's only a yacht race, but we're a small country and we have a lot of pride."

It's not just that phenomenal, but brutal, ending to the 34th America's Cup that is burned into the national psyche.

The failed 2007 campaign in Valencia, and Team NZ's hapless defence of the cup in 2003 have had a compounding effect. Those heady days of red socks, ticker tape parades and parties in the Auckland Viaduct seem oh so long ago.

Over the past 17 years the enduring moments and images of New Zealand's involvement in the Cup have been those of betrayal by our best and brightest sailing talent.

Of bailing out water with plastic buckets. Of the mast snapping on the beat to windward. Of "this f***ing boat". Of mistimed penalty turns. Of one-second defeat. Of a catamaran named New Zealand slowly heeling over. Of being robbed by broadcast-imposed time limits. Of the preternaturally composed Dean Barker slumped over the helm in grief.

Of hero-turned-villain Russell Coutts getting one over us again.

"It's a pretty bloody brutal game," observes Lester.

And yet, here we are again.

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Defeat in San Francisco

did not bring the end of Team NZ. What the failed 2013 campaign did bring, though, was a whole lot of public recriminations, finger-pointing, a messy restructure and a severing of the Government purse strings.

In their battle to stay afloat, the Kiwi syndicate lurched between fiscal and public relations disasters.

The nadir did not come in the immediate aftermath of the regatta of regret, but nearly 18 months later when Team NZ sent Barker, their much-admired and long-serving skipper, packing.

The change was, at its heart, natural selection at work. The prodigiously talented Peter Burling, who has long drawn comparisons to Coutts - our greatest ever yachtsman - seemed destined to be at the helm of Team New Zealand from the moment he was signed by the syndicate in early 2014 alongside his Olympic sailing partner Blair Tuke. But Team NZ's treatment of Barker - a man who had been a picture of dignity and grace in San Francisco - did not sit well with the New Zealand public.

If Barker's departure cost Team NZ dearly in the court of public opinion, then moves by their rivals to vote through a series of sweeping changes to the America's Cup design rules and format for this year's event hit the Kiwi syndicate where it really hurt - the hip pocket.

The changes included the consolidation of the regatta format to just one location - Bermuda - which meant reneging on an agreement awarding Auckland hosting rights for the America's Cup Qualifiers, originally slated for February. Without it, Team NZ's hopes of securing government funding sailed away.

The team have been trying, with some success as word has it, to recover that money through an arbitration process (but sshhhh, we are not supposed to know about it as the America's Cup Events Authority has strict confidentiality rules in place for this edition and teams are not even allowed to mention the word arbitration). It's been rumoured Team NZ stand to receive more than $10 million in compensation from the ACEA.

Meanwhile, Team NZ have had to cut their sails according to their cloth. Operating budgets have been slashed to under $20m a year, which may seem a ludicrous amount of money, but it is a paltry sum in comparison to the resources afforded the billionaire-funded teams.

70,000 supporters flocked to the Americas Cup village for the presentation of the Americas Cup Trophy to Team New Zealand after they defeated Prada 50.
70,000 supporters flocked to the Americas Cup village for the presentation of the Americas Cup Trophy to Team New Zealand after they defeated Prada 50.

"Everybody is on reduced salaries; nobody earns what they earned last time, if they are even here from last time," Grant Dalton told the New York Times in a rare interview earlier this year.

"We've really struggled financially to survive. Bermuda, with all the best intentions of a venue, is a difficult place to sell sponsorship."

The team's combative boss has largely remained in the background for this campaign. It was partly through design - Dalton is a polarising figure and bore the brunt of much of the public backlash towards the team - and partly through financial necessity. Oracle made a provision in the Protocol governing this year's event that threatens fines ranging up to $250,000 for teams or individuals who criticise the ACEA.

The rule has been nicknamed the "Dalton clause".

With Dalton keeping his head down, Glenn Ashby, the team's chipper Aussie skipper, has been the face of the campaign.

The multihull veteran is the only member of the 2013 crew who will be back on the boat this year.

The departure of Barker, who later took with him a host of Team NZ personnel to new syndicate Softbank Team Japan, forced the Kiwi team to seek out further fresh, young talent to bolster their ranks.

Along with Burling and Tuke, there's the rotating cast of grinders, or "cyclors" as the team have come to call them, including Andy Maloney, Josh Junior, Guy Endean, Olympic rowing champion Joe Sullivan, and former sprint cyclist Simon van Velthoven, who provide the grunt for the high-tech wing-sail catamarans.

"I certainly bugger up the average age of the sailing team, that's for sure," jokes 41-year-old Ashby.

Aside from having youth on their side, one of the advantages of the new-look crew is they don't have the same trauma those attached to San Francisco did. Some, like Sullivan and van Velthoven, weren't even sailors back then.

But the concern is that all the off-water antics that tend to be associated with the America's Cup may come as a shock to the system for the newcomers.

The event's history is one rich with the kind of technological innovations, jealously guarded secrets, diplomatic squabbling, deceit and mind games that rear their heads in any proper arms race.

This time is no different.

Team NZ have found themselves on the other side of the divide from their fellow competitors on most of the key issues facing the event from the boat design, regatta format and scheduling.

As is the right of the defender, Oracle set the terms for this year's contest. The scrum has been further screwed in their favour by an unusual working relationship between Cup holders and four challengers - Artemis, Ben Ainslie Racing, Team Japan and Team France.

The "tight five" have been able to force through a series of retrospective rule changes - the most recent in March - leading to the rules that govern this year's event being branded the "elastic protocol".

In a major break with tradition, Oracle and their allies have also attempted to lock down a broad format for the next two America's Cup cycles, regardless of which team triumphs in Bermuda.

New boys Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.
New boys Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.

The five teams unveiled a framework agreement for the next two events, which will be held in 2019 and 2021, at a glitzy event in London in January. Team NZ refused to sign the agreement, making this year's event in Bermuda not only be a battle between sailing teams, but an ideological battle over the Cup's future.ONE THING that all competitors can agree on is the America's Cup Class catamarans that will be hurtling around the Great Sound over the next five weeks are nothing short of spectacular.

This year's America's Cup promises to be faster, flashier and crashier than ever before.

The sleek high-tech 50ft rocket ships the teams will be sailing this year make the AC72s used in San Francisco - which were at the time considered a quantum leap forward for the sport - look positively prehistoric.

"The performance of these little boats compared to the AC72s is quite special because they were designed to foil from the first," says Ashby, who trims the giant 24m wingsail that powers the boat.

"They're 20 per cent smaller than the last boats, but about 20 per cent quicker around the track."

Much of the speed gains can be put down to the greater manoeuvrability and improved upwind performance of the new boats.

In the right conditions, the boats are now capable of getting around the course without their hulls touching the water.

Aeronautical terminology has become a part of the everyday sailing vernacular, the crew now talk of "banking into turns" and "stall rates" and "angle of attack".

"We have craft now that are flying above the surface of the water on something that's 2m long by half a metre wide, and going at a speed that is faster than you're allowed to drive around the roads in the suburbs. And that's all with the power of the wind," enthuses Mark Orams, a two-time Team New Zealand strategist and sailing guru.

In full flight, the high-powered but highly skittish catamarans are, paradoxically, majestic and terrifying all at once.

Team New Zealand's preparations for this month's America's Cup have gone from bad to worse today after the Kiwi boat sustained damage after colliding with British team Land Rover BAR during practice racing.

Each sharp change of direction brings with it a sharp intake of breath from onlookers as the boats seemingly turn on a dime with little more than two oversized hockey sticks controlling their flight. The build-up to the event has seen a flurry of mishaps on the Great Sound - there have been violent nose-dives, bunny-hops and, in the case of Oracle, capsizes. Twice. If these incidents are occurring in training, Orams says it's almost certain they will happen in racing when you have two of the boats engaging in close-quarter action.

"It's no longer this pedestrian, plodding, tactical chess game that is unfolding in slow motion in front of you. This is balls to the wall, 'oh my God, what is going to happen next?' kind of excitement."

Team New Zealand has taken a different tack when it comes to powering their boat, unveiling a radical cycle-grinding set-up earlier this year, which Oracle are now racing to try to replicate - albeit on a smaller scale.

The shock innovation has helped reignite the New Zealand public's interest around the America's Cup as it continues a popular narrative. Team NZ have once again pitched themselves as the little Kiwi battlers outsmarting the big-money syndicates through innovation, endeavour and technical prowess, which is in keeping with how we like to view ourselves as a nation. We see ourselves as pioneers, as innovators, as thinkers - when confronted with a problem we box clever.

Lester believes Team NZ's status as the "lone wolf" in this America's Cup will also help galvanise the country behind them.

"We're very much the underdog this time, and operating outside the framework agreement that has bound the other teams together.

"So I don't think it will take a hell of a lot - well it will take a good performance - to actually get people hooked again. If Team NZ are looking strong, the excitement levels will ramp up again. There is something irresistible about the Cup. It gets into your blood."

Yes, if the national conversation could be distilled into one imaginary voice, it would go a little something like:

"The America's Cup? Pffftttt it's just the plaything of egotistical billionaires if you ask me. An elaborate pissing contest. What's that? Team NZ are going okay? Godammit where are my red socks!?"

That red socks have come to be a symbol of Team NZ's America's Cup campaigns is probably fitting.

Perhaps the late Sir Peter Blake, the man who masterminded Team NZ's first America's Cup win in San Diego in 1995, was on to something all along with his superstition about wearing his lucky red socks on race day.

If San Francisco has taught us anything, it's that luck, in all its mischief, remains as essential an ingredient in the America's Cup as technology and money.

New Zealand's roller coaster history with the America's Cup

1987 Plastic Fantastic

New Zealand's first serious crack at the competition came in the 1987 Louis Vuitton Cup in Fremantle, with a challenge bankrolled by Michael Fay. Skippered by Chris Dickson, the fibreglass boat KZ7 was the surprise package of the round robin, emerging with an 11-1 record. The New Zealand challenge - concisedly named New Zealand Challenge - eliminated French Kiss 4-0 in the semifinals before falling to Stars & Stripes in the final, marking a maiden meeting with Dennis Conner, who went on to reclaim the America's Cup.

1988 Cats and Dogs
Conner was to further resonate in the New Zealand consciousness a year later when, after Fay launched a legal challenge based around the Deed of Gift, New Zealand Challenge earned a one-on-one showdown with Stars & Stripes. But the holders also had a few tricks up their sleeve, taking advantage of a loophole to enter a catamaran against the Kiwi's monohull. Stars & Stripes retained the Auld Mug after winning both races off San Diego by a combined margin of 39m 25s, leading to Conner's infamous line "I'm sailing a cat, someone else is sailing a dog".

1992 Protest Wars
New Zealand's next challenge, at the 1992 Louis Vuitton Cup in San Diego, was another marred by controversy. After ranking second in the round robin and advancing through the semifinals, New Zealand Challenge faced Italian syndicate Il Moro di Venezia in the final. The Kiwis thought they had earned a 4-1 lead in the best-of-nine series, only for a successful protest to overturn the result of the fifth race. New Zealand then dropped the next four races to be beaten finalists once again.

1995 Red Socks
After Fay withdrew his funding following the unsuccessful 92 campaign, Sir Peter Blake began putting together a team, eventually registering Team New Zealand in 1993. The new crew made their debut two years later in San Diego, emerging on top of a seven-team Louis Vuitton Cup round robin and defeating One Australia in the final to make another date with Stars & Stripes. With Black Magic the faster boat and with Blake's colourful hosiery providing a boost, Team NZ completed a "blackwash" to win the Auld Mug for the first time.

2000 Still New Zealand's Cup
After Italian syndicate Prada defeated AmericaOne to earn the right to challenge Team NZ on the Hauraki Gulf, the holders became the first non-American crew to retain the America's Cup. Ably led again by skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth, Team NZ completed another 5-0 sweep to see off Prada. Coutts even found time to pass the torch to 28-year-old Dean Barker, who helmed NZL60 in the final race.

2003 The $2 bailing bucket
Team New Zealand quickly found that success had a price. More than a third of the victorious 2000 campaign crew - including Coutts and Butterworth - were lured to overseas syndicates and, to add salt to the wound, Coutts led Swiss challenger Alinghi to a 5-0 win over Barker's Team NZ. If that wasn't bad enough, Team NZ also suffered the ignominy of having to use buckets to bail out water from their boat in the opening race, and the mast snapping in the fourth race.

2007 A failed challenge
The newly-renamed Emirates Team New Zealand headed to Valencia, Spain, in an attempt to win back the Auld Mug. The Kiwi crew, sporting a greater international flavour than ever before, thrashed Luna Rossa 5-0 in the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup to set up a replay against Alinghi. Team NZ quickly jumped out to a 2-1 lead, before losing the final four races and dropping the series 5-2.

2013 Aaaarrggghhhhhh!
After Oracle had snatched away the Cup in a Deed of Gift challenge, Team New Zealand cruised through a farcical Louis Vuitton Cup in San Francisco, beating two challengers to earn a match-up with the holders. In a regatta replete with controversy off the water, Team NZ had a clear speed advantage over Oracle early on, racing out to a 6-0 lead. The well-resourced American team somehow found an extra speed edge over the latter stages of the regatta however, pulling off a stunning turnaround to recover from 1-8 to win 9-8.