"Kiwi Yachties" are revered by many and respected by all in the international sailing community. NZME's sailing professor Mark Orams takes a close look at why.
"We need more Kiwis on this boat" was the summation from the American owner of the yacht I was racing on many years ago. It was his blunt assessment of the best option to improve performance after a poor result in the recently completed regatta.
Over the years since, I have continued be asked by the international sailing community: What it is that makes Kiwi sailors so good?
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I think the wider New Zealand public may not realise that, in a similar way to Kiwi rugby players, "Kiwi Yachties" are revered by many and respected by all in the international sailing community. This reputation has been created by decades of continued success in all aspects of the sport, from small high-performance yachts at the Olympic Games level to around the world yacht race success and, of course The America's Cup.
As a nation our record in the America's Cup has been the most successful of any over the past 40 years. We have been the finalist in every America's Cup challenger series we have competed in (beginning with our first ever challenge with off Fremantle, Australia in 1987) and we have won the America's Cup three times (1995, 2000, 2017). Now in the summer of 2021 we have the chance to win it again.
We should take a step back and think about this. Our nation of 5 million people is not only competitive in sailing, but has been the most dominant nation at America's Cup level for the best part of half a century. This is in a sport that is technology based and requires huge money, a complex array of skills and research and development. Little old New Zealand has been pitted up against global super-powers such as the USA, Great Britain, Japan and Italy whose teams are often supported by global billionaires, the likes of which New Zealand has never had. It's impressive, and it does raise both admiration and wonderment from the non-Kiwi international sailing community.
So, what is it that makes our little archipelago of islands surrounded by the largest ocean on our planet so good at the sport of sailing? A big part of the answer is found in this aforementioned geographical reality.
Our ancestors were some of the greatest ocean navigators of all time. When Maori arrived on these shores, they had for centuries already been skilled ocean navigators and a people of the sea. Similarly, the early European explorers and immigrants travelled here on sailing ships. In the centuries of settlement by both Maori and Europeans, the steep topography and dense forests of our islands meant is was far easier to travel via sea than via land – and the power of the wind (and paddle) were harnessed to make these voyages.
The complex nature of our coastal seas, the wide range of wind, tides, waves and weather meant that to be successful as a sailor here one needed to be skilled, adaptable, resilient, hard working and in tune with the nature's elements. Funny, but these attributes are how I would describe today's top Kiwi yachties.
A graphic example of New Zealand's sailing heritage remains in action today with the classic "Mullet Boat" class on the Waitemata harbour. "Mulleties", as they are colloquially known, were originally designed in the late 1800s and locally built to take fishers out to the eastern reaches of the Hauraki Gulf and the Manukau Harbour to catch fish – primarily targeting mullet (hence the boat's name). A sea-worthy vessel with deep bilges, a flat bottom and buoyancy to carry a large cargo of fish, but swift enough to sail from and back to the fish market wharves of downtown Auckland was needed.
Inevitably, these Mulleties raced one another under sail back to the wharves because the first back there often drew the best price for their fish and with no refrigeration, getting the catch back fresh was a high priority. Natural competitive spirits combined with the financial incentive and the challenges of the Auckland's varying conditions drove the development of a high level of sailing skill.
An interesting connection between the America's Cup and the annual New Zealand Championship for the Mulleties is that the winner of this regatta is awarded the elaborate "Lipton Cup", so named because it was donated by Sir Thomas Lipton (of "Lipton tea fame"). Sir Thomas had (unsuccessfully) mounted numerous campaigns to try and win The America's Cup back for England in the early 1900s.
The story goes that in 1920 a group of Mullet Boat sailors in Auckland wanted to source a suitably grand trophy for their annual regatta and so they wrote to Sir Thomas Lipton asking for him to donate such a trophy. In typical Kiwi fashion, they somewhat exaggerated their status in Auckland society at the time and made claims to represent an extremely well to do yacht club in Auckland (which was of course completely untrue, they were more accurately a bunch of reprobate sailors who enjoyed racing hard and drinking rum).
To validate their story, they arranged for a photo to be taken in front of the very Victorian façade of the newly built Esplanade Hotel on the waterfront in Devonport and represented this as their important and significant yacht club in Auckland. It worked, and Sir Thomas Lipton commissioned a trophy built at Garrard and Co. of London, the same designer and maker of the America's Cup that currently has pride of place in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
This summer's America's Cup series will take place on these same waters that the Mulleties have sailed on for over a century. While the yachts are vastly different, the spirit of finding any and every possible way to make the boat go faster beats strongly in the hearts of the sailors of both vessels.
So, why are we Kiwis so good at sailing? As with our prowess in rugby, it is a multitude of factors from our heritage, our character as a nation and our willingness to "give it a go" - with a little bit of cheekiness and humour thrown in to keep it fun.
Latest update: the recent appointment of Brad Butterworth as an advisor to the Italian Luna Rossa team is telling. This team is the least experienced in terms of America's Cup winners (with the notable and important exception of Jimmy Spithill). They are also the team with the least number of Kiwis. So, the appointment of the experienced and four times America's Cup winner (twice in Auckland) Brad "Billy" Butterworth is a good move.
- Professor Mark Orams is the Dean of the Graduate Research School at Auckland University of Technology and is a former member of Team New Zealand. He was also part of Sir Peter Blake's winning Whitbread around the world yacht race crew aboard Steinlager 2.