As one of New Zealand's original "Swags" Lady Sarah Fay has an intimate knowledge of what life is like off the water for sailors' wives and partners. She recalls the personal sacrifice of America's Cup campaigns - and how her life is moving on. Carolyne Meng-Yee reports.
Lady Sarah Fay likes to say there were three people in her marriage: "Me, Michael and the America's Cup."
Her husband Sir Michael Fay, the merchant banker and rich-lister, was the driving force and money behind New Zealand's first tilt at the America's Cup in 1987. The Kiwi syndicate reached the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals, losing to Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes '87.
To this day the Cup is contested by men - both on and off the water - and remains famous for alpha male personalities and testosterone-soaked court challenges.
As a former SWAG (Sailors' wives and girlfriends) Lady Sarah, who turns 66 next month, knows how lonely it can be to be married to a Cup competitor.
In a wide-ranging interview, the first lady of New Zealand's America's Cup has opened up about raising a family during Cup challenges - and her life without Sir Michael.
"I absolutely felt like there were three people in the marriage," she recalls to the Weekend Herald, borrowing Princess Diana's famous line.
"When we lived in New York, Alan Sefton [former Team NZ boss] lived with us for six months. There was always someone in or around us. With the America's Cup business always came first, it always, always has been that way.
"Michael was driven but not to the extent of everything else. He does have a good heart in the sense he wanted to bring the America's Cup to New Zealand for New Zealanders."
'Swags' and surprise friendships
And despite the intense rivalry between Team NZ and "dirty' Dennis Conner, Lady Sarah reveals she was good friends with other syndicates' Swags.
"The boys are at the top of their game. Sailing is very much a male culture in any sports like rugby. The wives can sometimes be on the outer.
"They have to work really hard to cultivate relationships within a very short timeframe. I've watched some of them really struggle especially if you are in a new city.
"It's easier if you have kids, they are a distraction. The boys are stuffed when they come home from work but you've been hanging around all day not quite knowing what to do with yourself."
Lady Sarah made friends with wives from various syndicates, Louise Conner, wife of Dennis, Nicola Dalton ("she's fabulous") the ex-wife of Team New Zealand's CEO, Grant Dalton, and veteran Bruno Trouble's wife, Melanie.
Lady Sarah believes Conner and Michael were arch-enemies because they were so alike.
"Dennis is in the same category as Michael - driven, ambitious, focused. Michael always got what he wanted. He had a very good feel for leadership and recognising people's abilities and talents and tried to make them all work.
"Someone like [former Team NZ sailor] Chris Dickson was not easy."
The upheaval of moving from one country to another for short stints became unsettling for the Fay's three children. When they moved to Fremantle for 18 months daughter Jessica thought she was living in a third world country. Crammed into two tiny apartments a hole was cut in the middle so they could move between the two properties.
"It was a bit freaky when your husband rings you to say you have to go to Fremantle because the guy who was meant to take the job isn't here. Michael had to basically get a team together in a hurry.
"Thankfully we had a nanny with us but we had to run it like a home. It was wonderful in some sense but in another sense, I was thinking, 'what the hell am I doing here? The campaigns were tough but that was my life. I never stopped to think about it.
"I think it would be hard for some of the wives and partners now, especially with Covid, they don't have their families with them so it would be more disruptive now than it would have been then."
Lady Sarah says Sir Michael felt "defeated" after New Zealand lost challenges in Fremantle and San Diego. She has seen first-hand how shattering defeat can be. For this reason she has admiration for Dean Barker and his wife Mandy.
"Don't underestimate mentally how tough it is for these guys. We can all stand on the outside and say 'somebody should've done this more, they should have done that' but you don't actually know what's really going on.
"Dean and Mandy are nice, decent people."
And the possibility of Team NZ, if successful in this regatta, hosting the next America's Cup abroad has made Lady Sarah cross: "I am unimpressed especially after all that money has been spent on the Viaduct. Mind you all those cones and roadworks –they have completely stuffed it up."
Corporate housewife no more
These days Lady Sarah (she prefers to be called Sarah) doesn't even follow the America's Cup and lives alone in an elegant Parnell apartment surrounded by eclectic art and limited-edition books.
Her most treasured possessions are her Patrick Steele designer dresses from the 80s, her Venetian champagne flutes and a marble bust brought from Sicily.
No longer the corporate housewife, Lady Sarah wears minimal makeup and prefers to dress "down".
The navy shift dress she is wearing today is from "The Row" an exclusive label designed by celebrity twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Her Red Keds (canvas sneakers) are understated and she's wearing jewellery worth more than the GDP of an undeveloped country.
"I had a beautiful five-carat diamond ring which I accidentally put down the waste disposal. I fractured the ring and thought, 'that's perfect there will be no arguments as to who the ring will go to in terms of my children'. Those days of dripping in gold and diamonds have gone.
"I always say to my hairdresser, 'Paul darling, no Mrs Remuera allowed'."
The 'naughtiest girl' at school
Sarah Anne Williams was born in Auckland in 1955. Her father, Major General Robin Williams, served in the New Zealand Army and every two years the family moved to wherever their father was posted.
"I wouldn't describe our upbringing as privileged; we grew up all over the place. My father was in the army so we moved every two years in Waiouru, Auckland, Christchurch, Singapore, Malaysia, London.
"Dad spent a bit of time in the Vietnam war I think that changed him. He is very stoic, very staunch."
Lady Sarah says she was "packed" off to board at Nelson College for Girls aged 12.
She and her younger brother Guy visited their parents in Asia for the Christmas holidays. Lady Sarah says her grandmother was "amazing" and had a huge impact on her life, teaching her life skills such as cooking and sewing.
Everything about Lady Sarah is refreshingly unguarded. She is witty, laughs a lot and oozes warmth and humour. She says she was the "naughtiest girl" at school.
"I was expelled. It was the day after UE [University Entrance] had been granted, thank Christ. I was at the beach with two friends, it was my first cigarette and my first beer.
"The principal was walking along the beach with her dog and I was 'nailed' but at least I had my UE which I was very happy about. My parents not so much."
After high school Lady Sarah did the Pitman course in typing and shorthand. She met her first husband at 18 (the marriage lasted five years). She went on to work in several restaurants in the late 1980s including Melba - famous for long lunches and bratty advertising execs quaffing bottles of Bollinger.
Sarah was 27 when she met Michael Fay, who is six years older, in 1980 and they married three years later.
"He had a lot of magic, a lot of aura. He was ahead of his time in terms of what he achieved and did. He could be demanding, difficult and fabulous all at the same time.
"But I don't know any man who has been wildly successful that's any different to be honest."
Before they married Sir Michael told her he would never change and Lady Sarah had to 'fit in".
"These are my words at 65, not 25. I thought, 'oh well that's easy', my mother did exactly the same thing. We had a really good 25 years, then things went a bit haywire, as they do.
"Michael fell in love with me but towards the end it drove him mental. He said, 'well you've never done anything I have asked you to do'. I said, 'well, I am never going to change'."
The couple have three children - James, 36, Jessica, 35, and Annabel, 33. She describes the trio as her greatest achievement. All three live overseas and have carved out successful careers in law, finance and academia.
Lady Sarah is grateful for the privileged life she has, but is still happy to lend a hand to help others who are less fortunate. Though sceptical about the number of charities in New Zealand, Lady Sarah supports the Rising Foundation that mentors at-risk Māori and Pasifika boys from South Auckland schools.
"It's a safe place for these kids - they can rise up or go downhill. They are fabulous kids. I've been camping with them and slept on lovely squeaky plastic sheets on the marae. It's wonderful."
Recently Lady Sarah rallied around her girlfriends to donate $100 each into a bank account for the children of a friend who died penniless.
"I don't live on the poverty line; I live a comfortable life, probably more comfortable than some. The biggest thing I have learned is compassion so you can give back. But if it's not in the heart to begin with, how can you give it."
She doesn't suffer fools who try to take advantage of her.
"They might do that for a certain period, then I put the nail in the coffin and stop. It's not being taken advantage of, it's because you end up looking like a fool and I don't like that. But I am pretty generous."
Life without Michael
Lady Sarah and Sir Michael have been married for almost 40 years but have lived apart for the past nine years.
He lives alone on Great Mercury Island which is a helicopter ride away from Auckland.
"Michael bought Mercury Island before we got married. He loves the isolation, there are three huge buildings there and nobody's in them. It's crazy.
"But things change and I don't think living on Mercury island did me any favours. Michael was a great love but not the greatest love of my life. We've not been living together coming up nine years so it's been quite a while and if you can't sort it out in nine years, it ain't going to get sorted at all, let's be honest."
She does have a few regrets and wants to say sorry to Michael and to her children.
"I could say sorry to Michael for a few things that I've said and done and he could do the same of me. My kids and I look back on some of the things that have happened.
"I would like to say sorry for maybe not doing my part or the best thing I could do. People don't say sorry enough. If you say sorry then comes forgiveness.
Lady Sarah has a new companion: Ricardo Simich, the Herald on Sunday's Spy editor, who is gay and 20 years younger. Their relationship could be described as modern.
"We are very good friends. He is a great handbag, so am I.
"We've had great times and terrible times but at the end of the day he is a good man. I enjoy his company and his brain. He is very naughty and that's what appeals to me.
"We both have the same sense of humour and we can play off one another really well. We are both sharp."
And how would Lady Sarah like to be remembered?
"One of the naughtiest girls at school. I have a young heart. I don't have an old heart and I'm very rebellious at times. As soon as somebody tells me to do something I go right the other way."