No More Curse of the Sheepherders
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Outside magazine, September 1995
No More Curse of the Sheepherders
But why would such a wholesome nation want the America’s Cup?
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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?