In 2013 Team NZ lost arguably the most dramatic America's Cup regatta in history. Michael Burgess talked to all the key players, for the incredible full story.
Sport can be cruel. But that's what makes it so compelling, and often the tragic losses and near misses last longer in the memory, even if we don't want them to.
Think of the 1992 Cricket World Cup semifinal at Eden Park, the Silver Ferns blowing the Netball World Championships in 1999 or the litany of All Blacks quadrennial stumbles before 2011.
But probably nothing has stung as much as the 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco. It was all but won, but the final flourish never came and Oracle managed the greatest comeback in Cup history.
At the time it was agonising, especially the final seven days (seven!) when Team New Zealand was stuck on match point, like a climber at the Hillary step who has lost their rope.
But it was magnificent theatre and recognised as one of the greatest sporting contests of the modern era.
It was arguably the most dramatic America's Cup regatta in its 170 years (1983 and 2007 had tension, but nothing like this) and it changed the course of elite sailing.
This is the story.
The tragic death of Artemis crew member Andrew Simpson, after their catamaran had flipped in strong winds, overshadowed the build-up to the event. New safety measures were introduced, and the Swedish team forfeited their round-robin races. One of only three challengers, Team New Zealand cruised to a 7-1 victory in the Louis Vuitton Cup final over Luna Rossa, after progressing through the round-robin undefeated. Oracle were deducted two points ahead of the Cup match, after being found guilty of illegal tampering with some AC45 boats used in the Youth America's Cup.
Joey Allen (Team New Zealand crew coach; fifth campaign with TNZ): We were confident, ready to go and we felt we were ahead of them. But the Oracle monster is massive, and my gut feeling was that they would be able to react very quickly.
I had worked for six years with Larry Ellison and knew how they could operate, what they could do in a week. I knew the beginning wouldn't reflect how the end would be. And the Louis Vuitton Cup had been a joke; an absolute waste of time, a lemon. The opposition wasn't up to it.
Harold Bennett (Principal race officer): In terms of race management San Francisco was quite different to other Cups. The conditions were fairly predictable, day by day. In terms of preparation for those conditions, Team New Zealand got that just right, whereas Oracle appeared to be quite far off the mark. That was surprising.
Tom Ehman (Oracle director of external affairs): The Kiwis looked quick and fit. We knew Glenn Ashby was going to be good and Dean had plenty of experience. But no one knew how he would respond under pressure.
Peter Lester (TVNZ expert commentator): I remember looking at the two boats and getting a few shivers. Oracle just looked like a more impressive vessel, aerodynamically and hydrodynamically. It looked slick. But they hadn't figured out all of the gremlins to make it work. Whereas the New Zealand boat looked more tradesman-like.
Oracle probably had more potential whereas with Team New Zealand you wondered what room they had to make gains, given their resources. You looked at Oracle and thought; if they can get this thing to work, they will be formidable. But the cheating saga set the tone for the regatta. It was huge. Oracle threw several guys under the bus for that and it just wasn't right.
Team New Zealand won the first three races. The third was especially impressive, as a smart Dean Barker manoeuvre forced Oracle to tack away due to the course boundary. Oracle won the second race on day two, to wipe away one of the two penalty points imposed by the international jury before the Cup.
Joey Allen: We were happy with the way we were sailing, but the physical toll was brutal. They looked horrendous; especially on two-race days. But I don't have any memory of the crew complaining or being overconfident. All we were focused on at the end of each day was getting them back to the docks to recover.
Paul Lewis (New Zealand Herald correspondent): They were about even downwind but Team New Zealand was quicker upwind. And that was key. The faster boat upwind was the one that won. They seemed to be able to get up on their foils faster and stay there longer.
Jim Farmer (Team New Zealand director 2003-2013): San Francisco was a spectacular venue and an amazing place to race, tacking alongside Alcatraz. But it felt like the city never quite knew the America's Cup was going on; never quite ended up capturing the event. In Valencia (2007), the whole city was behind it.
Brent Bakewell-White (technical director Team Korea Challenge, New Zealand Challenge design team 1987, 1992): I thought Team New Zealand would win the Cup. Oracle looked quicker but their boat was harder to sail. They had flashes of brilliance but couldn't match what the Kiwis were doing.
Grant Simmer (Oracle general manager): [Team New Zealand] were the first ones to foil. They were leading the pack and luckily the other challengers were not very strong so they hadn't had a lot of racing, which was good for us.
Team New Zealand claimed an emphatic victory in the first race. They had trailed until the third leg but accelerated away upwind, helped by a bungled Oracle tack at the bottom mark. The defenders finished more than a minute behind, and then played their wild card to call off the sixth race scheduled for that afternoon. "We have to go away and regroup," said Spithill. "They have an edge upwind, so we played our card strategically."
Harold Bennett: I remember watching Russell [Coutts] and Jimmy on the boat after that race. It looked like an interesting discussion. I thought 'I know damn well what is going on there. Let's see what happens after that'.
Paul Lewis: I was mildly surprised, but it was pretty clear they were going to lose unless they changed something. It's not unknown in America's Cup circles for that to happen.
When racing resumed Oracle had made a significant crew change, with local tactician John Kostecki replaced by four-time Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie.
Tom Ehman: That was a smart move by Russell, but it wasn't popular locally. Jon Kostecki was a member of the Golden Gate Yacht Club and a highly respected sailor with all the local knowledge. He had made the lay line call in Valencia (2010) to win the first race.
Peter Lester: In one of the first races after Ainslie had come on, he told Spithill to "shut up and sail the boat". We heard the audio coming off the boat. That was a defining moment for me. Ainslie added a lot with his personality, his skills and his confidence. Oracle had their backs to the wall and had to do something. It was unfortunate for Kostecki, but local knowledge wasn't that important.
Paul Lewis: Ainslie is a real talent, bloody smart, aggressive yachtsman. It helped a lot.
Grant Simmer: We never thought we could win. We were struggling to match the Kiwis for speed, so we lost a lot of early races. It was really Larry Ellison, together with Russell who said "guys we have to stop … we are going to go down if we keep going like this". They forced us to make some quite radical changes, including bringing Ben in.
Despite Ainslie's presence, there was no immediate impact. In race six Team New Zealand demonstrated their upwind prowess to overtake, before leading from start to finish in the next race, cruising home by the biggest margin of the series (1:06). They had six points, while Oracle remained on -1.
Paul Lewis: We were counting chickens for all that they were worth. There was no question that everyone thought Team New Zealand was going to win at that stage. Especially given the penalty.
Brent Bakewell-White: I was hosting breakfast functions for a sponsor, offering some technical insight. Everyone was really positive, and the Champagne was flowing. It was like watching the All Blacks when they were ahead in the 60th minute; the result was a no brainer.
September 14: Near capsize
The moment a nation held its breath, as Aotearoa came within a couple of degrees of capsizing. They had led from the start but bungled a starboard tack on the third leg and the wing sail was left pointing the wrong way. The right hull rose out of the water and the 72-foot cat almost toppled, before tilting back just in time.
"I think we had someone looking down on us," said Barker.
Harold Bennett: We were very close on the committee boat. It looked horrifying - it's a bloody long way down on those things. We all just held our breath. Our minds were flashing back to what had happened with Artemis and 'Bart' Simpson. It was that raw. It was almost like slow motion. "No, please don't do this". I grabbed the microphone, was about to call the rescue boat. We had medics on board and divers.
Tom Ehman: That probably would have been the end for Team New Zealand. We were all impressed with how they recovered. It was amazing. Capsizing was something we were always worried about.
Peter Lester: Oracle were coming at them and they were required to keep clear and they elected to tack. It looked like a late call and they didn't perform the manoeuvre that well. They did well to recover, but it all came from a communication mix-up. It would have cost them the Cup.
Paul Lewis: When it happened there was this enormous collective gasp from about 200 media inside the press centre. It sucked all the air out of the place. That first instance, when the bows dug in, we all thought, "that's it, they are going to go".
After Oracle enjoyed a point to point victory in the first contest, Team New Zealand prevailed in a thriller in the second. There were five lead changes and the delta at the top mark was just one second. But Barker outfoxed Spithill on the final run, as the Australian chose not to gybe, and Team New Zealand had a 7-1 advantage. Barker was thrilled: "If you didn't enjoy today's racing you should probably watch another sport". But Spithill wasn't giving up. "I think the question is: imagine if these guys lost from here? What an upset that would be," said the Australian. "They have almost got it in the bag."
Tom Ehman: If you give Jimmy a little bit of an edge … he's a boxer, he's a fighter. He catches fire. That's Jimmy, he has never been better than in a press conference. When he said that you could see the colour drain out of Dean's face; it was such a mind game.
Peter Lester: There was something going on in the press conference. I remember Tom Ehman standing on one side of the stage and English journalist Tim Jeffries, who was also working for Oracle, on the other. Spithill came out with that one-liner; it was masterful, but something was planned. I said to [colleague] Martin Tasker; "Shit there is something up."
Paul Lewis: Jimmy's a media pro. He's one of those guys who drags his personality up a couple of levels to play it for the cameras.
With Team New Zealand leading 7-1, it was reported Grant Dalton agreed with Oracle's suggestion of a rest day. In 2014, Barker said Dalton had taken the decision without consulting the sailing team.
Harold Bennett: That was where I feel it began to come apart. Team New Zealand had them on the ropes and gave them a reprieve. That time was absolutely vital for Oracle and they used it very well to make some major adjustments; it was a significant turning point. Iain Murray and I looked at each other and said, "why is he pulling a lay day?". From memory Iain called Grant to confirm it, just to make sure.
Joey Allen: That was a huge mistake.
Tom Ehman: We were surprised. It did look like they were going to win and that is probably how the people at the top felt. Maybe they were starting to think about how they were going to handle it, how they were going to get the [Emirates] plane here, what to do at the airport in Auckland? We heard they had rented a ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel. That was a bad look. We made sure the media found out about that one.
Jim Farmer: Grant didn't consult with the crew. It was a unilateral decision. I don't know why he did it that way.
Brett Bakewell-White: Oracle figured something out. Russell was heavily involved. Again, a Kiwi torpedoing our Cup effort. But that was his job.
Richard Gladwell (New Zealand editor, Sail-World.com): That whole story started in the media centre. That day was never an option as a race day; it was marked in the race schedule as a rest day, whereas all the other off days were reserve days which means that they can be used as race days to keep up with the schedule if it falls behind.
Paul Lewis: Dalts got blamed for that, being the reason that Oracle caught up. But I don't think Team New Zealand lost because of the lay day. Whatever Oracle did it has never come out. If there was some kind of mechanical change they made I would have expected it to come out by now.
September 18: Match point
After high winds had scuttled the previous day, allowing Oracle another precious day of development, Team New Zealand led from start to finish to take race 11 by 15 seconds. The series score was now 8-1.
Tom Ehman: I had a concession speech written for the Commodore of the Golden Gate Yacht Club. It was ready to go. We had rehearsed it. But then we had to keep re-writing it every day. But I was thinking I need to start scrambling around to find a Challenger of Record. We wanted to be prepared; nobody wanted a repeat of 2010.
Peter Lester: We could see Oracle had worked out how to get on the foils consistently (upwind). It felt like Oracle had more in the tank while Team New Zealand had virtually maxed out their potential. At that point there wasn't anything in it; it was very even.
Paul Lewis: My wife came up to San Francisco for a couple of weeks. And she has always given me stick, because she left when it was 8-1.
Joey Allen: A lot of people were arriving from New Zealand at that stage, but they could be a pain in the arse. You would come home at night and there would be drunk yachties knocking on your door, wanting to talk.
Brent Bakewell-White: Logic tells you, odds on you are going to win one of them. Surely.
For Kiwi sailing fans, one of the greatest "what might have been" moments in Cup history. In light, fluky winds, Team New Zealand led by almost a kilometre on the final leg before the race was called off, exceeding the 40-minute time limit.
Tom Ehman: We escaped that one. But how many more lives does the cat have? After that it became Groundhog Day. I would give a speech in the morning at the sponsors function, knowing it could be the last one.
Harold Bennett: The wind limits were set between competitors and race management. We had indicated that sailing below a certain point they wouldn't get around the course so we knew they couldn't finish the race. When I called them to say the race was abandoned they said "Yeah, we know".
Joey Allen: It was pretty brutal. I was on the chase boat and I don't think all of us realised. Some were getting excited. I remember saying something to "Curly" Salthouse and he pointed at his watch. That's when the penny dropped. It was tough for the guys on the boat. I think Dean and Ray [Davies] realised quite early but some of the other guys were a bit shocked. They might have been thinking "this is it".
But they blew me away with how they dealt with it. No one put any energy into it afterwards. It was in the rules and we all knew the rules.
Peter Lester: They were the rules. It was evident by the final leg that the time limit would be an issue. They needed wind to increase but it didn't build. It was strange. On an emotional level I felt gutted for them. But the race conditions had been agreed; you couldn't shorten the course, whereas in normal yachting you can. The sea breeze didn't build until an hour later than it normally did. There was something quirky in the forecast.
Paul Lewis: That was the key to the whole thing. It was a light wind but enough to start. Oracle was starting to go faster but they weren't as good in light airs.
Team New Zealand were about a kilometre ahead and they would have pissed in. How ridiculous is it that you call a race off because the TV is finished? It doesn't happen in any other international sport
I remember the press conference with Iain Murray afterwards. All of us were saying "What the hell" and he said we have always had time limits, and everybody agreed to them. But it was a ludicrous rule; television cost Team New Zealand the Cup.
Richard Gladwell: They had a crazy wind system. It was all triggered by a computer – using technology to do it. It took out the human element, the ability to interpret conditions.
Dalton's role as grinder became a talking point. The 56-year-old was on the catamaran for nine of the first 10 races – and 12 in total – despite the feeling that Winston McFarlane, 35, could provide more horsepower.
Jim Farmer: There was a charity dinner in Auckland in May 2013 where Russell and Grant both spoke. Grant had a crack at Larry Ellison, about his promise of 12 entries in San Francisco. Russell then got up and talked about Grant being on the boat, wondering how "no one else can be found in New Zealand who is better than a 56-year-old?" I knew that would make Grant so determined to stay on the boat and I was uneasy about that. I had misgivings.
Harold Bennett: That's an interesting one. He's a very competent sailor and he was more than capable. We all watched with interest. But only those on the boat know if it made any difference.
Joey Allen: Grant thought he could do it. He believed in himself. We had done pretty well with him on the boat. People use that as a reason why we lost but it was boat speed. You can't look for the niggling things.
Jim Farmer: It was so different to Valencia. The multihulls in San Francisco were so heavy, with huge mainsails. It was asking a lot and the sailors were a bit apprehensive. I was asked, on behalf of the crew, to talk to Dalts about his role on the boat. I gave him their reasons, but I don't think Grant thought it was right for directors to be talking with employees.
Peter Lester: That issue was a quid each way. I know some people weren't happy, but it didn't cost them the Cup.
Brent Bakewell-White: In his mind he is a man of steel. He's always been super competitive since he was a teenager.
Only two races had been completed in the previous three days, with Oracle winning both. The other four had been abandoned, gifting the Americans more precious development time. The score was 8-3, but the tide was shifting.
Jimmy Spithill (Oracle helmsman): We were in the fight of our lives. Every single day. You are going match point, each day, against the best team in the world - Team New Zealand. You are just trying to do everything you can to represent your team and to win.
Joey Allen: There was still a lot of belief. The pressure was mounting, but there was a belief we could do it, that we could pull it off. They kept fighting.
Tom Ehman: Russell came to see me in my office, and he was grinning like JFK, like a lightbulb had gone off in his head. "We have got them right where we want them," he said. There had been a few long faces around the base, but he always had optimism. There was nobody smarter, better or more focussed than Russell. He was always last to leave the base.
Peter Lester: I remember there were a lot of penalties and other incidents. If they hadn't happened, maybe we would have won the Cup. It started to go a bit pear-shaped and our game was littered with errors.
Harold Bennett: From the committee boat, we noticed differences between the boats. We noticed differences in the rig after the lay day. Iain Murray and I looked at each other and said "Wow, they've got it now. We are going to have a game on our hands". And that was it. They appeared to be following something that Team New Zealand had from the beginning.
Richard Gladwell: I had flown back to New Zealand. I had booked flights three months in advance – my gut feel was that if Team New Zealand hadn't won the Cup by September 18, then they were never going to do it. As it turned out September 18 was their last win. Nobody thought the regatta would be that long. It was eerie the way it worked out … the longest Cup in history. When I left I felt it was not going to end well.
Paul Lewis: Their momentum had started before race 13 and you could feel that Oracle had discovered something. But a yacht race isn't just run in winds of a certain level. You have to design a boat for light airs or stronger winds. It's too bad if TV can't show it; you still deserve the right to win in those conditions.
Grant Simmer: The changes we made were to load the wing a lot more down low, and we were able to foil upwind and ultimately we ended up faster, particularly upwind, and that turned the event around. Then it was a matter of recovering the points score without breaking down. It was hard to imagine that we could win that many races in a row without a breakdown because they were fragile and difficult boats…but ultimately that happened.
The Cup series had stretched across three weekends. Oracle won both races in the day, for the first time in the regatta.
Joey Allen: The regatta had dragged on so long. Nobody had expected that. Guys were getting evicted from their accommodation, where they were living. They were sleeping on someone else's couch. It was hard, really hard.
Peter Lester: The longer the regatta went on the more uneasy I was feeling. More uncomfortable. When you are dominant you want to finish it, make it as quick as possible. Team New Zealand were looking a bit brittle, starting to make mistakes. Oracle played it perfectly while New Zealand kept stubbing their toes. And against a team like Oracle you want a short regatta. But it didn't turn out that way.
Jim Farmer: I had a flight booked home, so I watched the rest of the Cup from Auckland. But the momentum had turned towards Oracle; you could feel it; you could sense it.
Tom Ehman: It caught the imagination. People who had never been to the port were streaming down there to see what was going to happen. It was the 'Woodstock of the water'. It became a big deal locally, then nationally. It reminded me of 1987 with Dennis Conner; the whole country was taking notice. Jimmy was the hottest ticket on TV, and everyone wanted to know about the comeback.
Joey Allen: I remember one light air day and we got cuffed in the pre-start. To me, that was the day we lost the Cup - when we didn't win that pre-start. It was a shit Louis Vuitton Cup, so we had no chance to tune up our pre-starts.
Paul Lewis: In the end it became a procession. You knew it was going to happen because they had the winds in their favour, and they were faster all round.
Grant Simmer: We sailed every lay day. We sailed something like 17 days in a row and kept making changes. Interestingly, if you look at the Kiwis in Bermuda they didn't look like they were going to be the winners when they first arrived but they kept on getting better and were just dominant in the Cup. You don't ever want to stand still ... you need to keep improving.
The final race – September 25
On a Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco the boats headed out for only the third decider in Cup history. Team New Zealand won the start and maintained a small advantage until the third leg, when Oracle's prowess upwind took them into a lead they wouldn't rescind.
Tom Ehman: I was on Larry Ellison's boat, with the Challenger of Record. We were trailing for quite a while. I remember thinking"Oh well, it's been a nice run". We were ready to sign the papers and you are always worried about something breaking. To finish first, first you have to finish.
Paul Lewis: It had become apparent they had the faster boat. There was an air of inevitability about it but because of where you come from you always have a little teaspoon full of hope somewhere in the back of your mind. But we knew what was going to happen.
Peter Lester: The conditions that day were pretty good for Team New Zealand, but Oracle popped the boat on the foils and mowed them down on the upwind leg. New Zealand sailed quite well but Oracle caught them.
Joey Allen: You could feel the guys' pain, seeing how tough they were. I was so proud of them; they had changed yacht racing forever. Oracle had become very rapid upwind and the fastest boat always wins.
Brett Bakewell-White: I can't remember watching that final race, though I am sure I did. It was all a bit dispiriting.
Dean Barker was a broken man, saying it was "hard to fathom … hard to swallow" as they contemplated the scale of Oracle's comeback.
Joey Allen: Dean copped a lot of flak. But what he did throughout that campaign was unbelievable. He did 99 per cent of the steering which needed incredible concentration and focus. In New Zealand, we had hardly sailed upwind so there was a lot to learn. He did a bloody good job. Everybody forgets that in Valencia [in 2007] Dean beat Jimmy 5-0; he caned him. People say Dean is soft in the head but that's crap.
Harold Bennett: It took a team of guys to make those boats work. Within that, there were lots of physiological mind games. Jimmy came across as an outspoken brat, but he is a bloody good and experienced guy. Dean Barker is quite laid-back, but he does show emotion. But it is too simplistic to focus on the helmsman. The tactician could make a mistake, or any other crew member, that could cost time and in those boats that is all it takes.
Jim Farmer: People tend to blame the helmsman, but he is being directed by the tacticians and trimmers. Dean is a great sailor. He won a lot of starts. A far bigger cause was that Team New Zealand didn't spend enough time on the water, developing their boat.
Paul Lewis: I always liked Dean. I always rated him for fronting up after they lost. We were close to deadline and everyone was pressing for it. They were all having a beer at the Team New Zealand base and I will never forget the look on his face when he saw me and others arriving.
It was like "Oh no, I've got to go through this". But the guy's got spine. He sat down and gave a really good interview to me and then several others. You need character to do something like that. A lot of other guys would have run and hid. Some things stick with you forever - that's one of them.
Brent Bakewell-White: Dean has a reputation for being a bridesmaid, but I've always thought that's a bit unfair. There wasn't anything he could have done by the end. It was like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Spithill was the toast of the sport, having retained the Cup for Oracle. His never say die attitude had caught the imagination of the local media.
Jimmy Spithill: My strategy was I believed in the team, I believed in the guys around me and we weren't going away without a fight. If we were going down, we were going down swinging.
That was the mentality in the team, and I wanted that to come across, because there was a lot of stuff being said, rightfully so, about our lacklustre performance at the beginning of the competition. But the team that a lot of people didn't see was an incredible, hard-working group and an amazing bunch to be a part of.
Peter Lester: Jimmy got the job done but he was well supported. Coutts was managing Spithill and it was masterful. But Spithill is hard as nails, like Ainslie and they got to Team New Zealand and Dean, absolutely.
Paul Lewis: He is pretty good copy. He came across as an arrogant Aussie sometimes and we all groaned when we realised that Oracle were going to win because we thought he would be insufferable, but he was a good sport.
Joey Allen: We had a few beers, but the guys were pretty tough. There were barely any tears at the end of it. They knew they had given everything.
Harold Bennett: Team New Zealand is so different to Oracle and the teams with rich benefactors who can just turn on a tap if required. Grant had a difficult balancing act to keep sponsors involved and keep a team running at full pace. He has done amazing things. It's a far harder job than people think.
Joey Allen: With some things they got very lucky, but they also adapted. That was the key. And the difference with that Cup was that the learning curve was very steep, in terms of the way the boat was sailed.
It was such a different feeling. At any one moment, you were a nosedive or a capsize away from going home. The non-yachties on the boat were incredibly brave. Every single manoeuvre was incredibly stressful. Across a day's sailing you were living on your nerves; shit it was stressful for them.
Jim Farmer: We thought we were going to win the Cup. Everyone is still bewildered by how Oracle did it. Cheating was raised with the jury but there was no evidence of that. Oracle did a really good job of developing their boat.
Peter Lester: When it got to the crunchy part of the regatta, Team New Zealand started to make some mistakes. If they hadn't … well, you never know. But that's what I always think about.
Richard Gladwell: New Zealand had a lot of bad luck. Things went Oracle's way at critical times, and they made the most of it. I'll always remember race nine. Team New Zealand was well ahead on the third leg, when the race was abandoned as the wind exceeded 23 knots. We were sitting out in the photo boats thinking "What the hell is going on here?"
Paul Lewis: Race 13 still bugs me. How unjust it was.
And there was an edge. The two teams didn't really like each other and there was Coutts and Dalton, so there was a bit of tension and that always makes for good copy.
Brett Bakewell-White: It was a watershed event, that changed yachting forever. The goal was going to be controlled flight and whoever figured that out was going to win. It woke the world up to the potential of foiling.
Paul Lewis: It was the longest assignment I have ever had. I was there for nine weeks. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. San Francisco reminded me of a more upmarket Wellington.
Joey Allen: It was a tough one to get over. Everybody felt that we choked. I never look at it like that. They were incredibly good men; they went through something that changed our sport. But I remember the exact minute the boys won in 2017. I thought 'this has helped me heal'.
Peter Lester: One of the lessons learned from San Francisco and their debrief was that you had to keep developing until the final race. Maybe that helped in Bermuda. They also had a later arrival there, spent the budget wisely and there were bits in the cupboard that never got put on the boat.