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America's Cup: 25 years on from San Diego - the Kiwi win in perspective

by Dr Hamish Ross 13 May 03:49 PDT 13 May 2020
Peter Blake holds the America's Cup after the presentation - 1995 America's Cup, San Diego, May 13, 1995 © Sally Simins

As unbelievable as it may seem to those who took part or witnessed it, 13 May 2020 (14 May 2020 - New Zealand Time) will mark a quarter of a century since Team New Zealand in Black Magic (NZL 32) completed one of the most comprehensive victories in the history of the America’s Cup, winning all five races of the 1995 Cup match with margins as much as 4:14.

It is one of those days were you remember where you were for New Zealanders above a certain age. The opponent was the colourful Roy Lichtenstein painted Young America (USA 36) (aka the “Mermaid” or “Dorothy”- after surviving damage in a tornado), skippered by New Zealand’s greatest yachting nemesis – Dennis Conner, who called tactics for his helmsman, New Zealand’s 1992 nemesis, Paul Cayard. Conner before the match had swapped out the slower Stars and Stripes (USA 34) for Young America in a vain search for boat speed.

For New Zealand, it was an exorcism of America’s Cup ghosts past. After over eight years and hard-fought campaigns, where the hopes of the nation had been ripped open, often after promising starts. First; by Dennis in Stars and Stripes in the 1987 Louis Vuitton Cup Final off Fremantle, Australia (“So if you wanted to build a glass boat, then why would you do it? Unless you wanted to cheat!”); by Dennis once again in 1988 in a controversial Stars and Stripes, but this time a catamaran in 1988 off San Diego, where the final result would see-saw in the New York courts for two more years (“I’m sailing a cat … someone else is sailing a dog”); and in 1992 when high hopes would be dashed by Paul Cayard helming for the Italians on II Moro di Venezia by a destabilising protest during the Louis Vuitton Cup final (Raul Gardini, leader of the Italian challenger, accused the New Zealanders of sailing (“with an unsportsmanlike manner”). "Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold," so said Don Corleone in The Godfather. With both Dennis and Paul on Young America, it was 3-star Michelin dining.

The Team learnt not only from these hard experiences, but some of the Team had also sailed with Dennis in other events, such as the 1993-94 Whitbread Around the World Race. Brad Butterworth says “It gave us an opportunity for a unique insight into what was required to win and defend the America’s Cup, something we could have never obtained otherwise.”

Team New Zealand’s win was the greatest sporting moment in New Zealand’s long history of sporting success. Team New Zealand’s campaign was led by the late Sir Peter Blake (as he would soon become), who sailed as one of the crew on Black Magic and who after the win, stood atop New Zealand’s sporting pantheon along with Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Peter Snell and Sir Colin Meads amongst other icons of New Zealand sport. The Team deliberately broke the mould of past New Zealand Cup challenges with a much-renewed emphasis and focus on teamwork, team culture, team leadership and team participation. The Team was led from the yacht, rather from the designers or management ashore. Even a management textbook would be published on Team New Zealand’s team management principles.

An entirely new design team was assembled, and it learnt much from the scientific approach of Bill Koch’s successful America3 campaign of 1992, hiring several key design personnel from that team. A breakthrough yacht was built by McMullin and Wing in Black Magic NZL32, but amazingly, its outstanding performance, apparent from its first sail, was kept under wraps as rumours were successfully spread by the Team that Black Magic NZL 32 was a failure.

The international America’s Cup media continued to write off the New Zealand challenge up until after the first races of the Louis Vuitton Cup round robins. Even then, Team New Zealand sailed NZL 38 up to the LVC semi-finals, keeping the Black Magic NZL-32 secret as late as possible. Back home, New Zealand needlessly fretted that another challenge was about to hit the rocks following the exchange from NZL-38 that literally, in one instance, had left a competitor sunk. It was the first time a New Zealand team won the Louis Vuitton Cup, a feat since repeated three further times since in 2007, 2013, and 2017. Nice, but the Team had come for the big prize.

It should not be forgotten that New Zealand had another challenger in the Louis Vuitton Cup semi-finals, the Bruce Farr designed Tag Heuer (NZL 39) representing the Tutukaka South Pacific Yacht Club, helmed by Chris Dickson, and it narrowly missed out on making an all New Zealand Louis Vuitton Cup final.

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