Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

The America's Cup took a huge step towards returning home this week. For the first 132 years of this storied competition, the Cup was securely in the hands of the American sailing elite, who successfully defended it against challengers from England, Canada, Scotland, Ireland and Australia before finally losing to the Aussies in 1983.

But that blip was corrected four years later when Dennis Conner and his Stars and Stripes racing yacht went down to the Australian port of Fremantle and proceeded to kick the snot out of Kookaburra III. The world was right again, the Cup was heading home.

But after the next three championships, the Cup kicked around for a bit in the southern hemisphere before ending up in Valencia, Spain.

So imagine the relief in Wallsburg, Utah and Booneville, Iowa, when a challenger finally emerged this past week to take on the current holders and was greeted by a huge banner hanging in the Valencia port reading: 'Bring the Cup Home!'

Oh yeah, the challengers will be trying to bring it home alright. But home will be the windswept Hauraki Gulf around Auckland, New Zealand, and not the rugged coast of Newport, Rhode Island, or the balmy shores of San Diego, California.

Thanks to their 5-0 victory over Italy's Luna Rossa this week in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals, Emirates Team New Zealand have earned the right to an America's Cup rematch against Alinghi, the Swiss-based team who embarrassed them in the finals four years ago in Auckland.

Losing the Cup was not only a devastating blow to the psyche of the entire country, it also precipitated the loss of an estimated NZ$1 billion (HK$6 billion) in potential revenue for hosting the 2007 Cup.

Despite the stature of the America's Cup, no other country, not the US, Australia, Spain or Italy, would be so rocked by a loss in a sailing competition. After all, how many of those countries have a Minister for the America's Cup? None other than the Honorable Trevor Mallard, MP for Hutt South, was on hand in Spain this week to witness the great Kiwi victory.

Among Mallard's portfolios are Minister of Education, Associate Minster of Finance and Minister of the America's Cup. That's Minister of the America's Cup, not Minister of the Louis Vuitton Cup, so one could safely assume that the most pressing duty for Mallard is to get the big cup back home.

Perhaps in his ministerial duties Mallard could also revoke the passports of Russell Coutts and his one-time henchman Brad Butterworth. Winner of a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, Coutts became one of the country's most revered sportsmen ever when he skippered Black Magic to victory in the 1995 America's Cup and brought the competition to New Zealand for the first time.

Coutts successfully defended the title on home waters in 2000 before doing the unthinkable and leaving Team New Zealand for Swiss side Alinghi. Naturally Coutts, considered by most to be the best match racer in the world, easily secured victory in the challenger's series before dismantling Team New Zealand in front of a mortified country.

It is difficult in the annals of modern sports to find a more devastating and bittersweet triumph than Coutts' victory in the 2003 America's Cup; a national hero not only defeating his own country but literally taking away the one competition that had shone the international light on this remote outpost like never before.

Only 12 years earlier, Coutts went to the US and defeated legendary helmsman Conner in his own backyard in San Diego 5-0. New Zealand beating the mighty Yanks in anything other than rugby is a huge upset. But look below the surface and you will see that New Zealand features perhaps the most enlightened indigenous sailing culture in the world.

It's a tiny island, water is everywhere and so are sail boats. Most Kiwis can tell you that a roll-reefing jib sail is used to roll up the main portion of the jib sail. Most Americans think that you are probably looking at 18 months for possession if you get caught with a roll-reefing jib sail.

When it comes to sailing, the Kiwis have never lacked the know-how or the passion. What they do lack is the financial muscle that it takes to keep talent like Coutts at home. In 2003, the challenger series of the event brought the likes of Oracle tycoon Larry Ellison and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen into the fray.

This year, Ellison spent US$200 million but still failed to make it to the finals of the challenger series, let alone the America's Cup. With that kind of money, it was essential that Team New Zealand secure a corporate sponsor with very deep pockets. Now that Emirates has stepped up, the Kiwis have a chance.

The peerless Coutts has parted ways in a less than amicable manner from Alinghi and will not be responsible for inflicting any more hardship on his native brethren. That duty will fall to fellow countryman Butterworth, who has become the pariah of the moment in New Zealand.

But no matter because Auckland Mayor Dick Hubbard has already stated that he is looking to revamp the city's waterfront for the next America's Cup. During the last America's Cup and challenger series, the downtown facilities were considered more than good enough by all involved.

But when you are the 'home' of the America's Cup, good enough is apparently not good enough. Isn't that right, Mr Minister?