Over two weeks ago, I was prepared to write a celebratory missive about how the entire nation of New Zealand rose as one to welcome home the victorious sailors of Emirates Team Zealand, bringing home The Auld Mug, the trophy of the America's Cup yachting competition, the oldest continuously held sporting competition in the world. Ahead in the race, 8-1 (USA's boat Oracle, masterminded by Internet billionaire Larry Ellison and skippered by New Zealander Sir Russell Coutts who had never before lost an America's Cup competition, had won 3 races but had been penalized 2 races before the start for illegally concealing weight in previous regattas), victory seemed close at hand. But as my close friend in the Hawkes Bay told me, 'it's not over until the last over," a cricket term familiar to Kiwis who love the sport but who have often lost close matches at the last possible moment.
Most New Zealanders, as most Americans it seems, were at first barely interested in the America's Cup regatta which was held for the first time in the Cup's 162-year history in San Francisco Harbor beneath the glorious backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is because the boats, once sponsored and crewed by nations, were now manned by international crews employed by the highest bidder. USA Team Oracle's boat was helmed by the pugnacious Aussie, Jimmie Spittall, and ultimately navigated by the gold medal winning British Sailor, Ben Ainslie. Oracle's crew included numerous Kiwis and both of its breathtaking AC-72 catamarans, which seemed to fly on hydrofoils at a speed of over 40 knots an hour, were built (where else? ) but in New Zealand.
Though Emirates Team New Zealand was spearheaded by Kiwi Grant Dalton, a peer to the late, great Kiwi sailor Sir Peter Blake, whose famous red socks helped to to bring the Auld Mug to New Zealand in 1995 but who was tragically murdered by pirates on the Amazon in 2001, was skippered by Coutts' apprentice, the apple-cheeked Dean Barker. However, Emirates Team New Zealand also had an international crew supported by foreign sponsors. These spectacular caravans, which seemed to ride above the water on knife blades, were exhilarating to watch but prohibitively expensive to manufacture and maintain. They were also very dangerous as they had a tendency to capsize, which resulted in the May 2013 death of Swedish boat Artemis' British-born skipper, Andrew 'Bart' Simpson, who drowned when trapped beneath the wings of his tumblesaulted, broken vessel. Resultantly, only four challengers competed for The Louis Vuitton Cup, which determined the 2013 challenger to USA's Team Oracle.
During the morning of the first America's Cup race, I called my friend in San Francisco whose home has a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge, to see if she could see the races from her window. She had no idea that they were even on. Another friend, a transplanted Aussie living with his family in central San Francisco, mocked the empty viewing stands on the harbor, saying that the race was a joke, and of no interest to Americans lulling back to work after the long, languid summer, preoccupied with baseball pennant races and the beginning of the National Football League season.
As New Zealand is 16 hours ahead of the U.S., we were able to watch the America's Cup races live on national television before breakfast. My husband and I tuned in to the first few, which New Zealand won in spectacular fashion. "Minds over moneybags," I texted my Californian friends, referring to the New Zealand team's limited budget in comparison to the bottomless purse of billionaire Larry Ellison. In those first few races, Emirates Team New Zealand seemed to outrace and outwit the baffled Oracle crew which was scrambling to refit its boat and spending all its down time re-examining its navigational strategies.
Soon, it seemed, all of New Zealand was late for work, staying home to watch each race and cheer on its proud, victorious sailors. New Zealanders gathered in pubs and sailing clubs to watch the races which headlined the national news. It reminded me of when I first came to New Zealand in 2000 and television screens were set up in public places so the entire nation could watch the regatta held in Auckland's Viaduct Basin. When Team New Zealand retained the cup, the sailors were celebrated with ticker tape parades in large and small metropolises alike. Everyone felt a part of that celebrated win. It seemed like the epic reincarnation of David and Goliath: my adopted small, proud island nation whose indigenous peoples, the Maori, first arrived to Aeotearoa, the land of the white cloud, on waka or hand-carved canoes, had beaten the billionaire bombastic challengers, represented at that time by the blustery American yachtsman, Dennis O'Connor.
So my husband and I rose early every morning to watch the 2013 America's Cup races whose grandstands were slowly being filled by patriotic Kiwis wearing the national black and white colors and waving its Southern Cross flag, with only an American flag here and there. As an American citizen with New Zealand residency, my loyalties were singular. I was rooting for the underdogs, and so, for a time, did most of the world.
But even though the Kiwi syndicate was leading 8-1, it wasn't over until the last over. Suddenly, the Kiwi syndicate seemed to literally stall in the water. Every day, the radio broadcasters began their programs with words they would soon regret, "Today is the day!" Joy turned to heartbreak as Emirates Team New Zealand finally gained a commanding lead to win a race which was then declared void because the light winds had caused the catamarans to finish outside of the pre-determined time limit. And Oracle Team USA changed its navigator and tactics and suddenly seemed unbeatable. It was literally as if its caravan had grown a new set of wings, or fins. Coming from far behind, they snatched the victory away from the despairing Kiwi crew. My adopted nation's heart was broken.
But something happened in this loss which is worth recounting during these days when my homeland's political center seems entrenched in selfless, narcissistic arrogant posturing. Though Emirates Team New Zealand had suffered what seemed to be an impossible loss, they were celebrated and welcomed home as heroes. The nation understood the brilliance of those nail-biting, breathtaking final yacht races, including one where the New Zealand boat almost capsized. It was the team's continuous, tireless effort and gracious sportsmanship which was celebrated. Though my husband said it was impossible to beat endless pockets, the race had transcended petty recriminations. Both teams had sailed like gladiators, and despite Oracle's Skipper Jimmy Spithill's pugnacious invective, both teams, victor and vanquished, retired with respect for one another.
And in my adopted homeland of New Zealand, whose losing All-Blacks once had to return home in the middle of the night so as not to have to confront its angry, disappointed fans after another loss in the Rugby World Cup despite being ranked the best rugby team in the world (the All-Blacks finally won back that World Cup in 2011) this was a sign of maturity indeed. Suddenly winning wasn't everything. And despite the exponential cost of launching another syndicate, Kiwis have opened their hearts and their pocketbooks, inspired, perhaps, by its most notoriously delightful expat, KimDot.Com, to launch another challenge for the America's Cup. Why? To keep this amazing team of sailors together. To give them another chance at victory, because in the end, it is all about teamwork. Victory is joyous but fleeting. However, relationships and national pride is eternal.