Wakas are the war canoes made by the Maori tribes native to New Zealand. They build little ones to go bash on their neighbors. They also build big ones, some over 100 feet long, to go bash on people on other islands. Some are painted white and black, which in Maori represents death. The waka on Pier 32 is white and black.
We have been invaded by Team New Zealand.
When speaking with the other syndicates, the mere mention of the Emirates New Zealand team was enough to trigger furrowed brows and muttered curses. The rumor is that Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill has an order in place that no one on the team is allowed to talk to sailors from Team New Zealand. When a photographer from New Zealand the team wandered to close to their neighbors on Pier 32, Prada, two enormous members of the Italian team headed straight for him.
With this knowledge, I stopped and took several deep breaths as I traveled to the Kiwis' compound.
Sure enough, upon arrival, a very stern looking security guard stopped me and had to radio ahead to let me proceed. I had a feeling two steps further and he would have released the dogs on me. To heighten my stress level, as I approached Kamp Kiwi, my arrival was greeted by none other than Grant Dalton, the man of steel himself.
No seriously, that super guy running around on movie screens right now? When he goes to bed, he wears Grant Dalton pajamas. Dalton's celebrity equivalent is Jack Palance's character "Curly" from the movie City Slickers.
Let me put this into perspective for you. The toughest sailing event in the world is the Whitbread Around the World Race (now called the Volvo Ocean Race). It's exactly what it sounds like, almost 40,000 miles of the most brutal ocean racing this planet can throw at sailors. I have done dozens of ocean races and I wouldn't attempt a Whitbread for a million dollars.
Grant Dalton has done five.
Then, for yucks and giggles (I guess), he jumps on a gigantic catamaran called Club Med and does it a sixth time, in the process setting the record for the fastest circumnavigation... and mind you, even that took 62 days. I can see why the Kiwi's picked him to lead their invasion.
And all invasions need soldiers. The breeding ground for these particular troops is the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Their sailing programs are built around one goal and one goal only: to produce the best Olympic and ocean racing sailors in the world. It's not a coincidence that there are Kiwis onboard almost all the other syndicates. They are incredible sailors, smart, tough as nails, and capable of ripping your head off.
I'm aware of all this as I introduce myself to Dalton.
Only instead of snarling and saying something Curly-like ("I crap bigger than you.") he is standing in front of me, holding a coffee and chatting away amiably as someone else fetches their public relations guy. Not only has he not ripped my head off, he walks me over to their catamaran as they are affixing the main wing to the boat. Actually, I am corrected later that in this America's Cup we don't even call them boats. Everything has become so high tech that the hulls are now referred to as the "platform."
I have been with other syndicates and around their boats (er, platforms). They don't like you too near them. They absolutely HATE you taking pictures of anything. You have to leave your camera at the front desk. You can't start poking at things. Getting onto an America's Cup base usually involves signing non-disclosure agreements the size of phone books. I am standing with Dalton next to their state-of-the-art rig, and it dawns on me that I have not signed an NDA. And I am taking photos without people tasering me.
These Kiwis are not what I expected. The other syndicates are wary of the press, but New Zealand's gregarious p.r. director Warren Douglas is something completely different. He takes me on a bounding trip through the compound, pointing out everything, showing me how the wings are put together and poking at carbon fiber components. He takes me into the shop where they custom manufacture every single last thing on the boat, since no retail product can handle the loads on these catamarans. Notes, schedules, and fixes are on whiteboards right in front of me.
It occurs to me that the only thing scarier than an opponent who hides everything is an opponent who doesn't. There is an air of quiet confidence that permeates their compound; an attitude that seems to say "yeah, we got this." Which is not to say they aren't cocky and competitive -- they are. I asked one of them how they deal with the fact that they are racing fellow Kiwis who are on the other teams. Immediately he shoots back, "they're enemies on the water."
I ask Douglas how badly New Zealand wants to win the cup. "This team, you can cut the atmosphere," he says. "Even in 1995, there was this feeling, the idea that New Zealand could beat America, and win the America's Cup was ludicrous. You've got NASA and Silicon Valley and Boeing, and we got nothing. We have a couple sheep."
These Kiwis have a core of steel but it's wrapped with a wicked sense of humor. Even the story of the Italians advancing on their photographer actually turns out to have a funny ending: the Italians were bringing him a gelato. It's hard not to like these guys, and I have a feeling no one on this team is going to have to buy their own beer in any bar in the city. As we are walking back the front gate, Douglas says, "We are a little country, and we keep hearing that we are twenty years behind America, but the fact is, on the West Coast... we are nineteen hours ahead!" He cracks up laughing, and then goes back to his business of winning the Cup.