Kiwis At The Cup – A New Zealand History In The America’s Cup

As the billionaires and their boats descend on Bermuda for the 35th America’s Cup, Team New Zealand will be once again showing why they are at the cutting edge of yachting evolution. Against a perpetual wall of money, Kiwi sailors have always found a way to get around or over it with skill, innovation, and positive attitude. Beating Oracle will not only return the Cup to Auckland, it will also win back their country’s hearts and minds.

almost like an act of defiance, Team New Zealand keeps challenging for the Auld Mug despite heart-breaking disappointments and constant financial hurdles put in place by their competition and their own country. Government funding has been a sore point source of some of their budget but with each Cup cycle the economic spinoffs are hard to ignore. On a sporting level, taking on the world is ingrained in New Zealand’s DNA and when it comes to sailing, there is little argument that Kiwis can match it with the best. Blessed with endless coastline as a key ingredient, New Zealand has produced Olympic sailing champions and round-the-world winners and in 1987 mounted the first challenge for the world’s most famous yacht race.


Thanks to Alan Bond and his audacious campaign that won the America’s Cup, New Zealanders were in a better geographical position to launch their first challenge and it was Marcel Falcher, a Belgian businessman who got the ball rolling. Shortly after registering the challenge, Falcher was made to leave New Zealand under allegations of fraud in Australia allowing merchant banker Michael Fay to take over the reins. Under the banner of Kiwi Challenge and chequebook of Fay the wheels were in motion to not only participate in the Cup, but win it. Finding sailors worthy of that level was no problem and the likes of Chris Dickson, Brad Butterworth, Tony Rae, Andrew Taylor and Jeremy Scantlebury would eventually have long America’s Cup careers.
Initially, 12-metre KZ-1 was purchased to get the team up to speed while the legendary Bruce Farr crafted KZ-3 and KZ-5 to compete in the 1986 World Championships. Using those two boats and the regatta for R & D, KZ-7 was created and she was different, very different. Farr’s innovative design gave birth to a hull that was fibreglass and in the round robin winning 33 of 34 races courted suspicion from Dennis Conner, the skipper of USA’s Stars and Stripes. By the time the two boats met in the Louis Vuitton Finals, Conner had unendeared himself to Kiwis claiming Kiwi Challenge were cheating with their fibreglass hull mouthing the immortal line of ‘why would you want to build a fibreglass 12-metre unless you wanted to cheat?’ While Kiwis had dubbed her ‘plastic fantastic’, Conner lodged a protest only for the organisers to pass her fit for the Cup. Unfortunately, KZ-7 lost the final 1-4 to Conner’s quicker windward boat but the New Zealand public’s fascination and passion for the America’s Cup was born.

Alan Bold

The colourful Australian businessman in a roundabout way was the conduit for New Zealand’s America’s Cup challenges, winning in 1983 and making the regatta accessible for Kiwi sailors. By beating American boat Liberty, Bond and Australia II broke the longest winning streak in the history of sport.

Sir Michael Fay

The Kiwi millionaire put his money where his mouth was and stumped up the money in 1987 for the first ever New Zealand challenge for the Cup in Perth. He also wrote cheques for the legal battles that followed and the subsequent challenge a year later and in 1992.

Dennis Conner

‘Dirty Den’ became the American sailor Kiwis loved to hate in 1987 when, worried about KZ-7’s impressive speed, accused the New Zealand team of cheating. Conner’s walkout on the Holmes show when prodded for an apology was the last straw for the Kiwi public but on the water, Conner was undoubtedly a sharp operator.


After Conner beat Bond’s Kookaburra III 4-0 to take the Cup back to the US, Fay wasn’t hesitating to have another shot. Using his high-powered legal team he uncovered a clause in the deed that would force the defender to accept a challenge in 10 months in any boat that didn’t exceed 90 foot (27m). Rehashing the KZ-1 name, the new behemoth boat was the fastest monohull keelboat in the world and travelled to the Cup’s new home in San Diego. Fay would soon get a taste of his own medicine and using the wording of the deed, Conner turned up to race in a catamaran that was outlandishly quick and swept KZ-1 2-0. The farcical racing situation ended up in courts with Kiwi Challenge winning the Cup only to have the decision rescinded on appeal from Conner’s syndicate. Ultimately, Fay’s appeal to the highest New York court failed and it was back to the drawing board.


With passion inflamed, Fay funded another America’s Cup cycle and returned with another Farr designed innovation. The tandem keel was a new tool as well as a bowsprit that would later become the centre of attention for more off-water trouble. Skippered this time by Rod Davis, NZL was quick and light and made easy work of the round robin. Boats from Russia, Sweden, Spain, Japan, France and Australia were swept aside until the finals where American Paul Cayard and the Italian syndicate, Il Moro di Venezia waited. Things looked good for the Kiwis at 4-1 in the final until Cayard launched a protest over the bowsprit which was a pole that extended off the prow or nose of the boat. Once again, off-water distractions derailed the Kiwi crew and after the removal of the ‘illegal’ bowsprit and being docked a race win proceeded to lose to Cayard 3-5. The events left a bitter taste in the mouth of sailors, fans and Fay who decided his time in the Cup was done. One of the positives to come out of the failed campaign was the immergence of Peter Blake who although turned up late in the event, had a sample and wanted to right the wrongs.


After the 1992 disappointment, a vacuum of funding left Blake to seek out $30 million of sponsorship and even pay the initial $75,000 entry fee himself. Building his team of sailors and designers started in earnest and in 1984 Olympic Gold medallist Russell Coutts, he had his skipper and in Tom Snackenburg, his design guru and navigator who helped Bond win in 1983. From the start, Blake put emphasis on communication within the team thus forging a stronger bond amongst them all. Working with a slender budget in the end helped with the decision making and design innovation and the team of designers created two carbon fibre boats that would become known as Black Magic 1 (NZL 32) and 2 (NZL 38).

On the water in San Diego, NZL 38 featuring Brad Butterworth and Craig Monk was untouchable during round robin and was defeated only once after 24 races. Retired for the subtle design differences of NLZ 32 for the playoff races, NZL 38 was seen as the quicker boat and the change raised eyebrows. Losing two races in the semi-finals added strength to the argument but NZL 32 would soon prove to be the fastest, cruising past John Bertrand and One Australia 5-1. It had been a drama-filled regatta for the Australians as they infamously sunk in choppy seas during round robin four against NZL 38. As the $4 million dollar boat snapped almost clean in two, there would have been some quiet sniggers back in New Zealand living rooms – after all 16 crew members were rescued. While Black Magic was undoubtedly the flagship Kiwi boat, Chris Dickson had success on the Tag Heuer boat which had renowned Kiwi sailors Peter Lester and Mike Sanderson on board. Dickson steered his crew into the semi-finals and displayed the immense sailing depth New Zealand possessed.

The events in San Diego were capturing the attention back home and so was Blake’s bright red socks. Given to him by his wife, Pippa and worn for every race, they became a lucky charm, confirmed when Black Magic lost their first race – Blake was noticeably absent. The Red Sock campaign kicked off and around $100,000 crucial dollars were raised by the Kiwi public who brought into the superstition and fervour.

Come finals time and the script couldn’t have been written better. Awaiting Black Magic was Conner and Stars and Stripes who had no legal ammo to throw and were roundly spanked 5-0 in what everybody hailed as a win for the best sailors and boat and not the fattest wallet. Conner even made a valiant attempt to make amends with the Kiwi public saying after the whitewash, “with the enthusiasm of the New Zealand people, I think they’ll breathe some new fresh air into the America’s Cup.” And, he was right. If the winning syndicate didn’t get a feeling of their support back in New Zealand they soon found out upon arriving back with the Auld Mug when roughly 300,000 packed out Auckland’s CBD for a tickertape parade. Schools were let go for the afternoon and the city stopped in what was the biggest of civic parties. Blake was duly knighted and the majority of Kiwis revelled in beating the world’s best but not everyone was happy about it. A year later Maori activist Benjamin Peri Nathan took to the casually secured Mug with a sledgehammer as it took pride of place at the Royal NZ Yacht Squadron’s headquarters. The famous trophy was left mangled and needed to be flown to London to be repaired.

Sir Peter Blake

Tragically murdered by pirates in the Amazon in 2001, Blake was the ultimate Kiwi yachtsman who won the Cup for the first time for New Zealand. Much-loved and a Kiwi icon, Blake inspired the nation with his Whitbread Round the World race victories and was sorely missed when Alinghi prised the trophy away in 2003. Led the syndicate in the 2000 defence on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour.


With the defence a touch over four years off, Auckland’s unattractive and unloved Viaduct Basin began its metamorphosis. Seen as an adrenalizing boon for the city and country’s economy, construction of syndicate facilities went ahead with new restaurants and bars taking pride of place in the revamp. Excitement built as eleven overseas crews arrived for training and testing with new entrants from Switzerland and the USA. Conner was back as was Cayard and a 19 year old prodigy named James Spithill who was skippering the Young Australia team was introduced to the New Zealand public.

The local fans would have to wait and watch for their boat as the Louis Vuitton Cup took several months to complete, Prada from Italy eventually seeing off three American crews, Nippon and French entry Le Defi BTT in the semi-finals. In what was regarded as some of the best racing to grace the Cup, Prada went deep with Cayard’s AmericaOne in the final series coming from a match point down to win the last two races and take the Louis Vuitton Cup 5-4. Even with their stellar crew intact from San Diego, Kiwi fans were anxious about their team’s chances since they could only practice internally and in relative privacy.

Even though the local boat wasn’t competing, the city was abuzz and the New Zealand Government would later announce the hosting of the regatta had poured around $640 million into the economy. The exposure for Auckland was priceless as was the experience for its citizens who welcomed for the first time en masse an armada of multi-million dollar superyachts coming for a holiday and spot of yacht racing. The city stopped for race days and thousands descended onto the Viaduct. In the finals, Prada was no match for Team New Zealand (as they were now officially known) and were thumped 5-0. Coutts was on the helm for the first four victories, handing the wheel to rookie, Dean Barker for the final race. Barker, who was only 26 at the time became the youngest skipper to win an America’s Cup race and unbeknown to him at the time would become the figurehead for the next decade and more.


The New Zealand marine industry and community were on a high after the comfortable defence in 2000 but the mood took a sour turn when Coutts and Butterworth signed contracts to sail for new syndicate Alinghi – owned by Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli – who would challenge in 2003. For years, Team New Zealand’s attempts at the America’s Cup were seen as the ultimate underdog story against wealthy bullies and the ‘them versus us’ mentality that went with it spurred the patriotism. Coutts and Butterworth were labelled as greedy pariahs seeking dollar over the perceived purity of Team New Zealand’s determination and their loyalty as Kiwis was severely questioned. Whilst Team New Zealand had retained many of the talented crew, Sir Peter Blake’s murder at the hands of pirates on the Amazon River late in 2001 took a large chunk of the soul out of the syndicate even though he had stood down after the successful defence. It was a solemn fall from the heights of February, 2000.

Ernesto Bertarelli

The Swiss billionaire is most famous in these parts for being the man to uplift Coutts and Butterworth and make the Cup even more about money. His Alinghi syndicate beat ETNZ in Auckland and broke local’s hearts, returning the Cup to Europe for the first time in 152 years.

From late in 2002, the attention was on Coutts and Alinghi as they worked their way through the Louis Vuitton Cup but to reach the finals they’d have to see off Conner and his synonymous Stars and Stripes, 2000 finalist Prada and new entry BMW Team Oracle. Freshly minted by billionaire Larry Ellison, Oracle had quality in Cayard and Dickson in their afterguard and it would arguably be the only time Kiwi fans rooted for Oracle. Alinghi would go on to thump Oracle 5-1 in the final and the ultimate grudge match to rival 1995 against Conner had the nation gripped. The confidence wasn’t high though and musician Dave Dobbyn’s suspiciously pointed song Loyal became a negative-energy theme song.

Racing in NZL 82, Barker in only his second ever America’s Cup race, battled with his boat from the outset and had to withdraw from the first race when the vessel started taking on water. Barker and the boat would show more of what was possible a day later when they lost by only seven seconds in a race that juggled the lead several times between the two boats. Two nil down became three nil when Alinghi won the third and the reality that Coutts was stealing the Cup away from New Zealand stirred the emotions. Conditions deteriorated before the next race giving Barker and Co nine days to regroup but during the third leg of Race Four, the mast snapped in a shocking moment that all but confirmed the result. Alinghi won Race Five and Coutts was still unbeaten in every America’s Cup race he’d ever helmed in. The Cup was gone, perceived to be stolen by a fellow Kiwi.


The love affair with sailing that had seduced the country had cooled significantly after 2003 and there was a bitter aftertaste which included reports of death threats to Butterworth and Coutts. Funding became a serious bone of contention and tax payer money being spent to keep Team New Zealand together raised the ire of the public. To help with the bills, Emirates Airlines became the naming rights sponsor of the team and another blue water specialist, Grant Dalton took over the top job. Dalton had to become somewhat of a salesman to ratchet enough sponsorship dollars in a local environment that had lost a lot of the love for the Cup. Whereas skill and ingenuity had won the Cup in the first place, money had become the key factor now and it didn’t sit right with most of the public.

In Valencia, which was the first America’s Cup to be held in Europe since 1851, new teams had sprouted up and the south of Spain location attracted South African, Chinese, German and Swedish syndicates. Operating on one of the smallest budgets in the regatta, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) showed again it was a tough team to beat in the Louis Vuitton Cup and headed into the semi-finals with a marginal one point advantage over Oracle. In a compact and competitive regatta, Italy’s Luna Rossa (formerly Prada) was only one win away from the pair and would prove too strong for Oracle in the semi-finals winning 5-1. Meanwhile, ETNZ dealt with local Spanish syndicate, Desafio Espanol 5-2. The New Zealand boat was too hot to handle in the finals series and the clean sweep of the Italians 5-0 filled them with confidence ahead of their revenge meeting with a Coutts-less Alinghi.

Coutts had run afoul of Bertarelli and was in the America’s Cup wilderness and Butterworth was the new skipper. Unscathed in the fallout from 2003, it went relatively unnoticed that five other Kiwis were on the Alinghi boat who would break ETNZ hearts again with their 5-2 win. At least this time it was a contest and all races were competitive at some stage, Barker showing he could operate at this level. But, again he had to grapple with technical problems. Spinnaker problems beset ETNZ in Races three through five and ultimately cost them the Cup. A month after the failed Oracle campaign, Coutts was signed on as CEO and quickly got to work upsetting his former billionaire boss.

Chris Dickson

Dickson was another of the world class sailors from New Zealand’s shores and was the original skipper of KZ-7. Featuring in the following America’s Cups with overseas syndicates until 2007, Dickson was well regarded as a fierce and gifted competitor, only losing once in the challenger series of the Perth regatta.

Sir Russell Coutts

Arguably New Zealand’s most talented sailor ever who went from hero to hated when he signed on with Alinghi for the 2003 America’s Cup. Ended up as CEO and skipper for Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing in 2007 before engineering the Cup defence from the shore in 2013. Knighted in 2009, it seems a lot (but not all) has been forgiven.


There were two winners in the 2010 America’s Cup; Oracle and lawyers. Bertarelli and Alinghi’s initial defence of the Cup was set down to take place in Valencia again but the protocols set out were roundly criticised and taken further by Oracle, Ellison using Fay’s 1988 tactics. Lodging their case with the New York Supreme Court, Oracle argued that the Challenger of Record, Spanish syndicate CNEV wasn’t valid as a challenger because they had never held an annual regatta and they won. After the smoke was clear, only Oracle and Alinghi remained and built 90 foot multi hulls that dwarfed previous incarnations. Alinghi’s 203 feet tall mast on their catamaran was topped by Oracle’s 223 footer on their trimaran. It was called as a ‘pissing contest’ for the two billionaires and sailing fans were left disillusioned, Kiwi folk seeing it as an end to further participation in the future. After nine months of construction the American boat couldn’t even fit under the Golden Gate Bridge. With sails so heavy and large, mechanical winches were needed to adjust them but despite the scale and size of the boats, they weren’t allowed to be overly quick because of the moderate Valencia breezes. After winning 2-0, Oracle would be returning the Cup to America for the first time in 15 years and vowed to make the 2013 edition a battle of more affordable catamarans.


Coutts’ and Ellison’s radical concept for the 34th America’s Cup was based around creating a better TV and spectator spectacle and chose the boss’ home city of San Francisco to host it. Under the imposing Golden Gate Bridge with the shoreline close to the course, 72 foot catamarans would reach speeds of up to 50 knots – a ballpark speed increase of 100% from the monohulls – and would rear up out of the water on their hydrofoils. In the lead up to the regatta, the safety of the yachts was brought into question when Andrew Simpson from Artemis Racing died when the boat flipped end over end spectacularly. Oracle themselves capsized in training and ETNZ came within a single degree of disaster only when their vessel, Aotearoa miraculously righted itself from an almost inverted position.

When competition started, only three syndicates would vie for the Louis Vuitton Cup from the budgeted fourteen and cynics had reason to feel vindicated as the challenger series puttered along. Sweden’s Artemis forfeited ten of their 15 round robin races before losing 0-4 to Luna Rossa in the pointless and academic semi-finals. ETNZ dealt the Italian syndicate a 7-1 drubbing in the final and the huge cost of the truncated and lopsided campaign was being seriously examined.

Barker would come up against Australian skipper, James Spithill in the final and New Zealand would soon have their new ‘Dennis Conner’ to direct their angst. That would arrive later however as ETNZ looked polished in racking up an 8-1 lead. It was only logical that the Cup was coming back to New Zealand…..Interest in sailing back home perked up again and at 8-2, Barker had Spithill’s number. In light winds, the anomalies of America’s Cup racing came to the fore as the 40 minute time period had been exceeded just as ETNZ looked assured on the fourth and final leg. The calling off of the race was farcical. It was a cruel blow but only a jab compared to the series of punches to follow. Oracle’s speed upwind increased literally overnight and they painfully chipped away at ETNZ’s lead day by day until at 8-8, the gloom set in. Most Kiwi fans were resigned to the fact they’d witnessed one of the largest chokes in sporting history. During the daily torture for ETNZ fans, Spithill’s surety and unwavering confidence in Oracle’s chances became hard to bear and he became the effigy to channel the anger. The fallout from the surrender of the unassailable lead saw Barker sacked unceremoniously and no one was in the mood to celebrate the fact both boats were in the most part built by New Zealanders.

Larry Ellison

In the top ten of the world’s richest men, Ellison took on Bertarelli’s Alinghi and made his Team Oracle the biggest fish in the pond. With his seemingly unlimited budget, Ellison has signed many of the world’s top sailors and sailing minds, his chequebook and concepts changing the face of the Cup.


As each unsuccessful campaign to wrest the America’s Cup back from foreign billionaires failed, the number of New Zealander’s anti the Government’s sponsorship of ETNZ increased. The loudest voices came from the opposition parties and always straight after another heartbreak but when sense prevailed, the proof is there that the America’s Cup investment is worth every cent. With skills and ingenuity in abundance, New Zealand’s boat building industry and pedigree is often the envy of the world and even Oracle have tapped into the well. Like the All Blacks are to the global game of rugby, New Zealand sailors and boat builders have regularly been at the pinnacle and the spin offs of their success has grown the local marine industry exponentially. Fluctuations and global financial conditions over the years have made life uneasy at times for the industry but turnover now is comfortably over $1 billion after it peaked in 2008 in excess of $2.2 billion.

Despair at losing regattas doesn’t bode well for the next round of investment but has the capital outlay worked? Four years ago in the lead-in to the San Francisco regatta, Oracle employed around 80 people for the manufacture of componentry (the vast majority New Zealanders) in their boat building facility in Warkworth, north of Auckland. For the defending syndicate to use Kiwi talent says it all but the dollar value to the local economy was around $350 million according to NZ Marine Industry Association estimates. Putting New Zealand on the map from a sailing point of view began with the Olympic and worldwide success of individuals but from a boatbuilding standpoint, being at the cutting edge was crucial. Oracle’s Ellison echoed many people’s thoughts when he stated the America’s Cup teams resembled motorsport’s Formula One in terms of pushing the technological boundaries and Kiwis are right in the thick of it.

Billionaires having fun with their bank balances have transformed the America’s Cup and to compete in San Francisco in 2013, $100 million was seen as the magic number to spring a viable challenge. That figure didn’t go well with New Zealand voters and the sentiment was shared globally. The result? A proposed fourteen vessel regatta ended up as a three boat Louis Vuitton party and only two real contenders. Where does ETNZ get that sort of dough? It was the Helen Clark-led Labour Government who put up the first sum of cash of around $34 million to help keep the team together after 2003. Met with dismay from across the benches, subsequent National-led Governments have continued the sponsorship, both sides seeing the bigger picture.

Keeping up with the Larry Ellison’s on a budgetary level is impossible so is it a sustainable investment for future regattas? If the New Zealand boatbuilding industry continues to grow and remain at the forefront of global demand and evolution then it must be a ‘yes’. Winning the hearts and minds of the Kiwi public is arguably the biggest challenge ETNZ has as interest in the Cup has waned significantly over recent times as the soul and sporting essence of the regatta has been diluted. A franchise factor has taken over. Beating the billionaire bucks was seen as a feel-good and honourable thing to support but disenchantment has grown as costs have spiralled and it is no longer about the best sailors or nation v nation. For many, it is like the Cup is now too far gone and failure on the water is another nail in the coffin. While the understanding of the benefits to the New Zealand economy may be enhanced by the flurry of mega-yachts docking in marine hubs like Whangarei and Auckland for refitting, apathy for the Cup has been augmented too. For a nation of supporters who enjoy and embrace their blissfully sincere ideals and views on global sport, a level sailing course would be the first step to regaining the black magic.

Dean Barker

Barker became the face of ETNZ upon the departure of Coutts and the untimely passing of Blake and had the weight of the sailing nation on his shoulders. Ultimately, Barker’s relinquishing of the 8-1 lead in San Francisco lead to his ousting from the team after 13 years. Supremely talented yet there were reservations about whether he had the killer instinct.

2017 – BERMUDA

Catamarans are again the weapon of choice chosen by the defending syndicate, Oracle Team USA with an increase in speed and decrease in size from 2013. Akin to low flying aircraft, the 50 foot America’s Cup Class vessels can reach up to three times the speed of the wind using improved foiling technology and tweaks to the designs. Five teams will compete in the Louis Vuitton Qualifiers and race each other twice before one crew drops out for the semi-finals. The first to five final will then decide who goes on to race Larry Ellison’s Oracle.