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Kiwis and sailboats

Kiwis and sailboats are, we all know, inextricably linked: wherever there’s an important regatta, you’re bound to find a New Zealander. Whether at the helm, in the shipyard or behind a computer, it makes no difference: a Kiwi will be there somewhere.

On arriving in Auckland you are welcomed to the City of Sails, so named because sailing is ubiquitous. It’s no mere myth that all New Zealanders are great sailors: they’ve immense skill in both racing and shipbuilding going back generations. Their shipyards are now world leaders when it comes to high tech construction. Indeed, the New Zealand authorities say that the nautical industry drives their economy, generating billions of dollars in turnover. Kiwi constructors such as Cookson and Marten Marine are inherently linked to the history of the World Cup Series and the America's Cup, having virtually taught the world how to make carbon boats. Auckland is home to one of the most important carbon fibre mast producers, Southern Spars, having supplied numerous America’s Cup teams.

So when did this tradition start? We have to go back to the 1980s, when the designer Bruce Farr started to export his designs and New Zealanders began to win races across the board. The first historic appearance of a hi-tech NZ boat in the America's Cup was in Perth, Australia, back in 1987: the 12m class boat was made of “plastic”, while all the others were made of aluminium. With a young Chris Dickson at the helm, the speed of this craft meant it reached the final, the super-favourite challenger. Unfortunately, team USA’s Dennis Conner caused Dickson to lose his nerve and so the New Zealand crew were forced to admit defeat. Yet the seed was sown. The merchant banker Michael Fay tried to challenge the Americans with a 90-foot monohull, but was beaten by the first catamaran to race in the America’s Cup with a wing sail. He tried again in 1992, but the Moro di Venezia put to rest any hope of success. However, that edition would prove crucial to the fortune of the New Zealand team.  Michael Fay's team leader was Peter Blake, who had recently won the Whitbread World Cup with Steinlager. Fay retired, but left the team with plenty of resources: a young Russell Coutts and the tactician Brad Butterworth. Together, they formed the core of the 1995 challenge, eventually winning the America's Cup from the Americans in San Diego. The team went to almost obsessive lengths in their preparation, Blake became famous for his red socks and they won a historic victory, despite having a budget half the size of the other teams.

In 2000, racing in home waters and with the same 1995 team, the Kiwis successfully defended the Cup against the first challenge by the Silver Bullet Luna Rossa. The original crew then broke up: too many attractive offers. Ernesto Bertarelli, in particular, managed to win over the helmsman Russell Coutts, the tactician Brad Butterworth and other loyal team members to form the Alinghi challenge.

Nevertheless, Auckland was not short of other fine sailors, albeit still relatively inexperienced in racing and less confident in defence. Yet they held onto the Cup and Russell Coutts generously relinquished the helm to the young backup helmsman Dean Barker for the last regatta against the Italians.

In 2003, the All Blacks of the sailing world suffered a defeat at the hands of the super fast, unpredictable Team Alinghi. The America's Cup went to Switzerland, although the winning crew were actually New Zealand born (and considered ‘traitors’ there).

The New Zealand team had to be rebuilt in order to regain the Cup and restore their honour. The Government even got involved: the loss of the Cup damaged the national economy. Luckily, an Italian shipowner with a passion for New Zealand came to their help. Matteo De Nora owned Imagine, a beautiful boat built in Auckland by Alloy. He started financing the NZ challenge and supporting the team, now headed by Grant Dalton, another World Cup Series winner with New Zealand Endeavour. In 2007, the Team New Zealand proved to be too strong for the other challengers in Valencia and beat Luna Rossa again (in the Louis Vuitton Cup final) before racing against Alinghi, who successfully defended the Cup.

In 2013, Matteo De Nora also headed the Emirates Team New Zealand in 2013.

The America’s Cup had evolved and the catamarans have arrived. The New Zealand designers wanted to make them fly, using foiling to the dismay of other competitors, who quickly had to adopt the same technology. We all know what happened: they were about to beat the Oracle Defender 8:1, but were soundly thrashed by the Americans who had been getting faster and faster each day. A painful defeat, and hard to digest. So the helmsman Dean Barker had to go and in his place comes Peter Burling, winner of the Red Bull Youth America's Cup. The young, aggressive sailor we now see in the Bermudas. History is about to be written again... and perhaps the Kiwi team will be successful this time...

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