New Zealand’s Cup

America’s Cup, seen by many here as a billionaire’s boat race, looks very different Down Under, with its culture of sailing and maritime innovation.

PHOTO: GETTY/EZRA SHAW

A few weeks ago I was walking down the dock in the marina where I live, in Wellington, New Zealand, when I passed a woman and a young boy. I’d never seen them before, which is uncommon here in this municipal marina — about 100 boats — in a small suburb of the country’s capital.

The boy was walking from berth to berth pointing out certain rig and hull features and expounding on them as only a future aficionado can. “Lots of different boats, huh?” I asked as I passed.

“Different than America,” he confirmed in an accent the same as mine.

The kid is sharp, I thought, or maybe it’s just obvious, even to an eight-year-old from Chicago. The New Zealand sailing scene is vastly different than its American counterpart, which is not to say there’s no comparing — they’re not exactly navigating carved logs with gunnysack sails down here.

But the boats in my marina are, in fact, mostly homebuilt from steel, cement, aluminum, and wood. They appear a motley crew compared to the cookie-cutter production fiberglass Beneteaus, Catalinas, and Hunters, with their identical pacific blue sail covers lined up in San Francisco’s South Beach Marina.

In New Zealand, a boat is rarely a status symbol — it’s part of the middle-class way of life, the home base for holidays and weekend fishing trips and lots and lots of competitive racing. If I’ve noticed one thing since I arrived in this country (aboard a sailboat, after leaving San Francisco and my job as a Bay Guardian staff writer), it’s that every little harbor town has a yacht club and an awful lot of Kiwis own boats — and they sail the shit out of them.

Which is part of the reason why the New Zealand government is willing to invest NZ$36 million (US$27 million) to compete in the 34th America’s Cup against some of the richest men in the world in a race that has become so elite there’s barely any competition.

Small as the field is, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) is quickly shaping up to be the team to beat if you’re on a high-speed, air-catching AC72 catamaran. If they succeed, it will show that developing an America’s Cup team doesn’t have to come from having deep pockets in your Nantucket Red pants — it comes from having the sport ingrained in your culture, filtered through affordable local boat clubs, city-run facilities, volunteer programs, publicly accessible shorefronts, and an innovative marine industry.

In fact, without New Zealand’s maritime way of life, Larry Ellison wouldn’t have much of a team: of the 27 sailors and management crew aboard Oracle, a third are Kiwis. Another third are Australians. If you count Ellison, there are only three Americans aboard. Just one of them — tactician and grinder John Kostecki — grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay.

Ellison’s boat is mostly a Kiwi production, too — the fixed-wing sails and structural components for Oracle’s two AC72s were made in New Zealand, as were the boats, sails, and rigs for ETNZ and Luna Rossa. The only other syndicate competing, Sweden’s Artemis, in the wind since the death of crewmember Andrew Simpson, is the outlier, but they still have eight New Zealanders on board.

America’s Cup is looking more and more like it owes a lot to New Zealand. Is the Cup doing as much for San Francisco as it is for this little island nation, with a population just a tenth of California’s?

“If it wasn’t called Team New Zealand, we wouldn’t get a lot out of it,” says Sven Pannell, a competitive dinghy racer and employee of the economic development agency Grow Wellington. “The numbers of boat builders, carbon fabricators, sail makers, yacht designers coming out of New Zealand are the reason we’re still at the top of the global game. If we can bring the Cup home that means a lot for our country.”

It may also save America’s Cup from becoming even more out of touch with reality.

IT’S THE CULTURE, STUPID

It’s June 8, summer in San Francisco but winter in Wellington. The first race of the 2013 Winter Series at Evans Bay Boat Club hits hypothermic seas beneath steely overcast skies and 20-30 knots of wind — “perfect conditions,” one sailor enthuses. Tame, actually, for Wellington. A week ago, wind blew out the fifth story windows of a building downtown.

Sven Pannell has just finished racing a 12-foot skiff, a super lightweight, often homebuilt boat that probably originated in Australia and is almost exclusively raced in the Southern Hemisphere, though an 18-foot version will be showcased in San Francisco this September alongside the America’s Cup finals. Weighing about 100 pounds, with no class restrictions on sail area, they rooster-tail around Wellington harbor, bow high, barely in the water. They seem to require a similar caliber of nerve as the AC72s.

Which Pannell, who won today, evidently has. He grew up sailing as a kid, as did his crew, Craig Anderson. Neither of them can think of anyone who didn’t get into sailing as a child.

“A lot of people around the world think yachting is a well-heeled sport, but not in New Zealand,” he says. “There’s a reason that half those [America’s Cup] boats are full of Kiwis and Aussies. Go out and see the number of eight-year-olds in Optis in all kinds of weather here. A high number of people sailing at that age creates a deep pool of sailors in demand.”

“America’s Cup is about stretching the limits, but it starts here, when you’re eight years old,” he adds.

Eager to get out of the icy Antarctic wind, I enter the boat club where about 35 people are gathered at the bar, buzzing from adrenalin, barefoot and wet from spray or capsizes, gripping ginger beers and green bottles of Steinlager, the Budweiser of New Zealand. It’s a humble looking crowd — no flash gear or cashmere.

I’m introduced to Mike Rhodes, 26, wearing a blue sweatshirt and camo pants. He’d love to race an America’s Cup boat, but he also satisfies himself with a 12-foot skiff, which he stripped and rebuilt, fashioning the stainless steel fittings himself — he’s a sheet metal worker.

“New Zealand sailing is all about learning and moving forward,” he says. “The boats we’re sailing are always changing. We have set rules for weight, width, and length. After that it’s wide open. You can put up as much rig as you can handle. We went out in 50 knots last weekend. It was insane. We probably had boat speeds of 30 knots.”

The speed and innovations are what appeal to Rhodes and also connect to the America’s Cup, which has been an historic proving ground for leaps forward in boat design. “Who thought New Zealand could make the boat fly first?” he says of ETNZ’s proficiency at foiling the AC72 — going so fast the hull actually lifts off the water.

We’re soon joined by Laura Hutton, a 30-year-old from Cape Cod. She’s raced dinghies, coached and taught sailing for years. Now a speech therapist, she moved to New Zealand three months ago and immediately hooked into the local yachting scene. It’s palpably different than what she’s used to in the States. Here, she says, “It’s a lot more laid back. It’s more inclusive than exclusive. I used to go to events at New York Yacht Club in Newport and I felt so uncomfortable there. It’s the most elite, snobby place.”

“You can’t get coaching in the US unless you’re part of a yacht club or go to a school with a racing team,” she adds, and there’s often a huge cost to enter the sport. “Here, I can join the local yacht club for $35 a month,” she deadpans.

I spend more money riding the bus, I tell her, but I wouldn’t in San Francisco, where it’s cheap to catch a bus but where most people rarely board boats.

The American yacht club tradition has a certain “if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it” attitude. Ellison is one of 300 members of Golden Gate Yacht Club, official host for the Cup. Its neighbor, St. Francis Yacht Club, 2,300 strong, also has a role in the festivities. Both are exclusive, members-only clubs and neither would tell me what their members pay for the club’s privileges.

However, they’re officially nonprofit organizations and filings with the IRS show St. Francis made nearly $13 million in 2011. Golden Gate Yacht Club took home $660,000 the same year. Ironically, both clubs are on public lands, leased from San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department for $231,125 and $64,000 annually respectively.

Both clubs run learn-to-sail programs for kids — $350 for St. Francis and $200 for GGYC — which seem affordable, but what’s the next step? Joining the club, but apparently it’s too rude to query the price.

By contrast, Wellington’s Evans Bay Boat Club charges NZ$281 (US$210) to join and Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, which is a sister club to St. Francis, costs NZ$160 (US $120). The Bay Area is lucky — Berkeley and Treasure Island both have affordable clubs, however one could argue that if St. Francis and GGYC are on public lands, they should be paying more in dues to the city.

If there’s a posh club in Auckland, it’s ETNZ’s home — the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. “But it’s a Kiwi version of posh, nothing like some of the yacht clubs I have been to in places like England, where women aren’t allowed to order drinks at the bar,” says Ben Gladwell, a journalist for Boating New Zealand who will be racing an 18 foot skiff in San Francisco in a regatta concurrent with the Cup finals. “At the Squaddy, there are obviously rules, like no cell phones, and dress codes and such like, but the fees are still only a few hundred dollars per year and it is much more inclusive than other yacht clubs around the world.”

Gladwell explored the health of New Zealand’s sailing culture in a story called “State of the Racing Nation” for Boating New Zealand. He found that although there is a drop-off in interest during university years, many yacht clubs have created partnerships to keep kids in the sport, there are mobile learn-to-sail units roaming the country, and lots of accessible city-run programs for kids. Couple that with low lifetime fees to stay in the sport and you see healthy clubs like Evans Bay, where people of all ages are out racing every weekend, all year round.

“Having so many people involved in sailing is a major reason we are successful,” he says. “Children are introduced to it at such a young age…by the time they come to competing at youth international regattas, they are hugely experienced and winning becomes a habit.”

“AMERICA’S CUP IS NOW NEW ZEALAND’S CUP”

In 1995, when Black Magic smoked Dennis Connor’s Stars and Stripes in a five-race shut-out, commentator Peter Montgomery famously quipped “America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup,” a line that’s gone down in Kiwi history like the “I have a dream” speech.

For the first time, the Auld Mug would be defended in New Zealand. Back then, Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor probably looked a lot like parts of San Francisco’s waterfront does today — dilapidated piers and old industrial buildings crumbling on their pilings. It would cost of NZ$58 million (US$29 million at the time) to dredge the harbor and spruce up the waterfront for the Cup.

The city made its money back. Hosting for two years, in 2000 and 2003, brought NZ$1 billion (US$500 million, at the time) in economic benefits to the country, about 85 percent of that going to Auckland’s local businesses, mostly from visiting megayachts and the services required for the nine syndicates that competed — twice as many as are in San Francisco today.

And Auckland made a lot less than the US$900 million predicted for San Francisco, already trimmed from the US$1.4 billion initially estimated. What the city actually gains from the $22.5 million investment they’ve been forced to make remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Auckland continues to benefit from the race.

It’s been estimated that the four Cup contenders have collectively spent half a billion on their campaigns and a decent chunk of that has been in Auckland, particularly during the AC72 design, build, and testing phases. Already, taxes paid by ETNZ employees amount to NZ$22.4 million (US$16.5 million). That doesn’t include the employee payroll taxes of all the businesses doing Cup-related activity, like the boat builders, riggers, and sailmakers.

ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton has netted sponsorships from more than 100 companies and argues that the Cup efforts have kept many marine businesses afloat that would have otherwise shuttered. Kiwis have not been immune to the world financial situation: the high New Zealand dollar hurting exports and the NZ$30 billion (US$22.5 billion) price tag for the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake have stressed the country’s coffers.

Because of that, funding ETNZ has been as contentious here as hosting Ellison’s party has been to San Franciscans. The agreement was signed in 2007 by a Labour Party-led government and when National Party’s John Key won the Prime Minister’s seat in 2008, he looked into breaking the contract, a move supported by other parties. “Funding the America’s Cup is surely a ‘nice to have’, rather than essential spending, in the current economic climate,” said Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei at the time.

The government was advised they’d still be legally on the hook for the money if they broke the contract, so ETNZ proceeded, but proof of economic return was a contingency and Dalton has taken pains to keep the public good in the conversation, a sharp contrast to Ellison’s attitude toward San Francisco. Dalton has said if New Zealand wins, the world should expect a sharp scaling back of costs. “We stand for nationality rule and we stand for real budget numbers that real people can raise,” he has said.

There’s definitely a sense that this could be New Zealand’s last chance to bring the Auld Mug home. If they don’t, the America’s Cup also loses. Who else will save it from American-style exclusiveness?

Originally published July 3, 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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