No More Curse of the Sheepherders

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1995

No More Curse of the Sheepherders

But why would such a wholesome nation want the America's Cup?
By Randy Wayne White

All things considered, the best place for a journalist to watch the finals of America's Cup XXIX was Auckland, New Zealand, not San Diego, particularly if the journalist was an American who, in eight years of applying loose cover to the event, had yet to decipher why, from sea to shining sea, any child of his republic should give a hoot in hell about a 144-year-old yacht race that is won or lost in a laboratory test tank and then played out as maritime theater by people who, historically, have been fops, snobs, and litigious eels.

Yes, Auckland was the place. Maybe stroll among Waitemata Harbor's umpteen thousand sailboats, then order eggs with snarlers at the Loaded Hog Pub and watch the races on the big screen above the bar. Kick back with the locals and pound down beverages, even though New Zealand's television coverage would begin at 9 A.M., the breakfast hour for outsiders but the first cool vent of the Steinlager window for a hard-core Kiwi. On off days, drive up to Lake Taupo and do some brown-trout fishing; eat Vegemite and biscuits in the shade, looking out across a landscape that has been manicured as neatly as the 12th green of Augusta by clouds of grazing sheep. This was incentive enough, but being 6,000 miles from San Diego's Point Loma also meant there was absolutely no chance I would find myself ducking upchuck on the Official Press Boat--or at the Media Center, for that matter.

I had been pulling for a New Zealand boat to win the Cup since the Louis Vuitton challenger elimination races began in April--not easy for a journalist who prides himself on unbiased reportage to admit. The reason I was partial to the Kiwis dates back to 1987, in Fremantle, Australia, when some toad from the Stars & Stripes syndicate banned me from its compound. "You are not qualified to receive press credentials," the form letter read in part--which was certainly true in terms of my sailing background, but I was a fellow countryman, for God's sake, and had traveled 12,000 miles to write about Dennis Conner's bid to retake the Cup. I was not the only journalist, and certainly not the only American, to be brushed off by Conner's people.

The night after receiving that letter, I was roaming around Fremantle when I happened to meet a couple of crewmen from Chris Dickson's New Zealand team, and within an hour I was neither friendless nor storyless. The New Zealanders had a house not far from the Stars & Stripes pen--KASA KIWI, a sign over the porch read--and it became my base of operations. The place had two bathtubs, both filled with beer, and plenty of floor space if one was inclined to sleep. The Kiwis shared my outrage: "Conner's bastards won't even let Randy in the door. An American!"

The New Zealanders were full of fun but smart as hell, and brilliant sailors. Yet pulling for New Zealand, I had learned over the years, was like signing on for some accursed hell cruise. In '87, Dickson's Plastic Fantastic went 38-1 through the semifinals, only to be shocked, 4-1, by Conner in the Louis Vuitton finals. In the challenge of '88, Michael Fay tried to manipulate a Cup win through the courts--but was outfoxed by Conner, who used a 60-foot catamaran to humiliate Fay's 123-foot monohull. In 1992, New Zealand was within one victory of being the America's Cup challenger but lost four straight to Italy's Il Moro di Venezia. New Zealand's sailors always dominated early and then folded quietly once the withering eye of the world was upon them. It was as if these descendants of sheepherders secretly feared that the jet-set world of international yachting was above their social station and that the back-stabbing, high-tech spook business of the America's Cup was beyond the purview of their small, green nation. Losing was the polite thing to do.

This year, true to form, the Kiwis were unbeatable in the preliminaries. Peter Blake's Team New Zealand was officially 39-3 on the challengers' course but had actually lost only one race on the water. So it was to be Blake's Black Magic against New Zealand's old nemeses, Dennis Conner and helmsman Paul Cayard--both of whom in previous years had beaten the Kiwis like cheap rental cars when the chips were really down. In yachting circles, some people believed that New Zealand labored under the dark cloud of its own Cup history: the Curse of the Sheepherders.

So the question wasn't whether New Zealand would self-destruct, but how, and when.

If I had gone to Auckland to watch the races, I could have found out how the locals steeled themselves against the implications of another loss. More interesting, I might have found out why New Zealand was hell-bent on, even obsessed with, winning the America's Cup. Had any of these people stared long and hard at that 144-year-old trophy? The Cup is one of those rare icons that, like the Hope Diamond, sparkles prettily but implies a dark and sometimes vicious past. In 1851, the 100-foot schooner America won the trophy from the Royal Yacht Squadron of Great Britain, and for the next 132 years the triumphant New York Yacht Club retained it by backing boats that reflected the monetary and technological superiority of the United States--and when all else failed, by hedging the rules. Men such as J. P. Morgan and Harold Vanderbilt saw to that.

The America's Cup trophy is 27 inches tall and looks like a cream pitcher mounted atop a bulb of cauliflower, with facets that are polished to a diamond luster. The facets are a résumé of light, reflecting the blue of open ocean, the pewter of steel mills, the lambency of laser beams, and the silver flash of hard coin--a whole retrospective on what the trophy once was and on the industry that it has come to represent.

Why would pretty, pastoral New Zealand want that?

"In this sport, no one gives anybody a chance, ever." Peter Blake told me that in San Diego, implying that he and his crew of 15, plus Team New Zealand's support group of more than 40, had their game faces on, that they were approaching the best-of-nine Cup races with a rugby-tough, kill-the-sick-and-eat-the-weak attitude. No more Curse of the Sheepherders.

The Kiwis won the first race by two minutes and 45 seconds--the nautical equivalent of blowing the doors off Team Dennis Conner. Even so, Blake was playing it cool, as was the crew. After the race, at the New Zealand compound, the team spent more than two hours washing down the sleek black boat and storing sails, while Kiwi supporters waited beside garbage cans packed with iced Steinlager. It was like a family gathering. The staff was unfailingly gracious, displaying a 1950s conviviality. Everyone wore buckskin-yellow team jerseys ("baby-shit brown," Ken McLeod of Auckland corrected me) and the lucky red socks that had been sold as a fund-raising device but had now become a national talisman.

Though the mood was buoyant, there would be no celebration. "There's no point in showing any emotion," said David Alan-Williams, who, along with principals Doug Peterson, Tom Schnackenberg, and Laurie Davidson, helped with the design and construction of the boat that would become known as the fastest in Cup history, Black Magic. "There are people who are waiting for the wheels to fall off. We know that. So the only win worth celebrating is the fifth win."

But that didn't stop everyone else in San Diego from having fun--which is why I decided to go there. Not that I couldn't have effectively covered the races via television. Like small wars and manned space flights, a regatta is best understood when bounced from a satellite and filtered through a production room. But the America's Cup is an event, not just a regatta, and a couple of weeks on Shelter Island, the vortex of Cup infrastructure, was just too attractive to pass up. The San Diego Yacht Club, a singularly friendly, unstuffy association, had done a great job of ensuring that the event would be accessible to the world but also have a communal feel. It was a short walk from the yacht club down Shelter Island Drive, past the America's Cup outdoor viewing center, the media hangout at Fiddler's Green, and the Team New Zealand compound, to San Diego Bay, where you could watch Black Magic and Team Dennis Conner being towed out to the racecourse.

Few San Diegans did. They were too busy hang-gliding, surfing, playing volleyball, hitting the beaches of Coronado, cruising Point Loma, listening to flawless psych-up music on K-Best 95 radio. Who could blame them? Hell, by the third race, I was doing the same thing.

But the indifference to Cup XXIX wasn't only a California phenomenon. It was a national phenomenon. America's beautiful vision of the America's Cup originated with ESPN's coverage of the Fremantle races in '87 and was expanded in '92 and '95. There were Boat Cam, Pit Cam, Water Cam (until a diver drifted out onto the racecourse and was nearly beheaded), and onboard microphones. People who cared nothing about sailing could hear the dinosaur groans of two sailboats that were as pretty and delicate as damselflies, while great commentary by people like Gary Jobson helped them understand the dogfight they were seeing. The bleary-eyed occupants of 2.4 million homes stayed up to watch the Fremantle races. In '92, the series drew an average of 841,000 homes. But in '95, ESPN's coverage was watched in only 523,000 households.

Why the decline? Among San Diego's nonsailing community, at least, the consensus was that people were disgusted with the endless legal bickering and backroom shenanigans they had come to associate with the event. In the Citizen's Cup semifinals, Mighty Mary and Bill Koch's mostly women team ostensibly eliminated Stars & Stripes in a much ballyhooed winner-take-all race. In fact, the race meant nothing, because of a 12th-hour deal struck among Koch, Conner, and John Marshall, president of Pact 95's Young America, that allowed all three boats into the finals. When Conner shocked everyone by winning the right to defend, he stirred further outrage by abandoning his own boat and renting the faster Young America for a reported amount of $10,000 a day.

To many people with whom I spoke, this was all perceived as sordid business, a kind of sophisticated cheating. In the United States, it deflated interest as certainly as it magnified interest in New Zealand, where more than 80 percent of the households watched the coverage and where people on the streets of Auckland were wearing T-shirts that read, NEW ZEALAND RULES THE WAVES/DENNIS WAIVES THE RULES.

In actuality, the San Diego Yacht Club produced the most equitable regatta in America's Cup history. "Country of origin" limitations were dropped, which allowed all challengers to buy American-made sails, spare parts, and instrumentation. Defenders and challengers had to declare their choice of boats on the same day (in '92, the defense had a six-month advantage) and had to unveil their keels simultaneously.

Even so, Conner became the easy target of all the venom that the controversies had aroused. Journalists are predatory by instinct, and nothing puts blood in the water faster than an overachiever prone to public floundering. And Conner, like anyone who leaves his belly bare while reaching for the top, had done his share of floundering. On the streets and in the media center, he was slandered daily ("Someone should drive a stake through the guy's heart!" I actually heard someone say), though the source of anger seemed to have less to do with past sins than with the fact that Conner was defending the Cup. A paunchy, middle-aged white male was so...un-nineties. Mighty Mary was Yoplait; Dennis Connor was Cadillac, for God's sake. Never mind that Conner and his team, in a slower boat, had outsailed the other crews when the real bell sounded.

After being banned from the compound in '87, I was no fan of Conner, but the vitriol that his name evoked seemed unreasonable. As Billy Trenkle, who has worked and sailed for Conner since '83, told me, "Anybody who stands out is going to take some shots, and nobody in the world of sailing stands out like D.C. He doesn't spend a lot of time kissing up, worrying about what the press is saying about him. Which is maybe why the guy you read about is nothing at all like the guy I know. There's nobody I've ever met who works harder at winning, but Dennis is also a genuinely nice man to sail with."

Nice or not, Conner didn't waive any rules when he switched boats. Previous defenders had done things far more outrageous than that. As Pact 95's John Marshall told Peter Blake, "You keep expecting this thing to be fair. The America's Cup has never been fair."

Black Magic just kept winning, putting up extraordinary numbers, leaving Team Dennis Conner so far behind that on occasion the boats seemed to occupy different time zones. Blake and members of his crew had dominated the 1990 Whitbread Round the World Race and in early 1994 shattered records by circling the globe in 76 days.

The Kiwis were on a roll, and their black boat really did behave magically. It did what no sailboat is supposed to do: It seemed to ingest the wind, venting the exhaust in a way that created the illusion of jet propulsion.

Even so, Blake and his crew remained stoic. He said things like, "It would be silly to anticipate winning, because we still have a long way to go." Which was true, especially in light of New Zealand's previous campaigns. It was the kind of thing a man says to appease a curse.

But after the fourth race, Peter Blake did allow his expectations to show--just a little. He told a New Zealand broadcaster, "If we are fortunate enough to win, we're going to clean up the Cup rules. Make the regatta ready-steady-even. Same rules for challengers and defenders. If that's to our detriment when we defend, so be it."

He also allowed himself to project what it might be like to host the America's Cup and, perhaps, in so doing opened a small window on New Zealand's long struggle to win. "If we genuinely want to invite the world to come to New Zealand, then we have loads of preparatory work to do back home," he said. "And if we want America's industry to come to us every three or four years, then we'll have to approach our defense in a united way, the same way we approached this regatta. We can't be at each other's throats, like the Aussie defense or like the Americans."

That some American defenders were motivated by acrimony, not nationalism, was demonstrated on the day of the fifth race, when members of Mighty Mary's crew wore red socks in support of the Kiwis--a brattish stunt that, if pulled by Conner, would have made national headlines.

Black Magic blew the doors off Young America a final time and then was towed back to the San Diego Yacht Club to claim the Cup. Immediately, a crowd began to assemble outside the New Zealand compound--dozens of people, then hundreds of people, mostly strangers, all pushing and shoving, trying to get in on the party. The wife of a Kiwi team member was crying--she'd been elbowed. Crewmen at the back of the throng couldn't thread their way to the front. It became a scary scene. The mob just kept pressing forward, while staff members seemed genuinely taken aback that their polite admonitions were ignored: "Couldn't you just back up, please? Please?"

Winning the America's Cup was an invitation to the world, and all that the world implied. Peter Blake had said as much. It took me a while to fight my way out of the compound, but I finally did, and I left wondering: Why would New Zealand want that?

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