Kiwis on edge as they close in on America’s Cup glory

Team New Zealand need five more wins to take home the sport's oldest and most highly prized trophy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 5:27am

From boat builders to occasional sailing fans, New Zealanders are on edge about the prospects of wresting the America's Cup from software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA.

And if Emirates Team New Zealand do go on to win sailing's oldest and most highly prized trophy, there are likely to be some changes to the next regatta - including cheaper race boats and some strong challengers from Asia.

While sailing remains a niche sport in much of the world and the current event in San Francisco has underperformed expectations due to a lack of initial challengers, all that has hardly mattered Down Under.

Broadcaster Television New Zealand said some 540,000 Kiwis - from a population of 4.5 million - tuned in on Sunday morning to watch Team New Zealand win the first two races from Ellison's Oracle Team USA, the defending champions.

By Wednesday, Team New Zealand led by four points to minus-1 and needed five more wins to claim the Auld Mug, which they previously held from 1995 to 2003. Underscoring how important sailing is to the country, the New Zealand team managed to secure tens of millions of dollars in government funding to back their challenge.

"Sailing is in our DNA," said Brett O'Riley, the chief executive of the Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development agency. He said Team New Zealand's futuristic 72-foot catamaran was like a bookend to the country's history, after the first indigenous Maori likely arrived some 800 years ago in primitive catamarans.

O'Riley predicted New Zealand would hold a regatta that would lower the costs of the boats in order to attract more competitors, saying there's already been strong interest from South Korea and China.

China had intended to mount a challenge in San Francisco but pulled out. O'Riley said Eileen Xiao, who helped start the China Cup International Regatta, had been visiting San Francisco on a scouting mission.

If the Cup does return to New Zealand, a defence will almost certainly be held in Auckland.

John Dalzell, the chief executive of Waterfront Auckland, said it had identified six possible sites to house competitors. It wouldn't be possible to use the previous site from the 2003 defence, he added, because the bases used by the challengers had since been developed into apartments and a hotel.

Dalzell said the cost of building the infrastructure for an Auckland regatta could be around NZ$100 million (HK$631.4 million).

He said multihulls were an emerging trend in global sailing and could remain part of the America's Cup.

For their part, Emirates Team New Zealand say it is too premature to talk about what a possible defence of the Cup might entail, or what changes they would make.

"We would rather not speculate. We leave that to others," team spokesman Warren Douglas said. "No doubt we will have something to say should there be a happy tale to tell."