John Roughan: The soul of sailing is missing from the America’s Cup
Basking in the sea one evening this week we watched two of the America’s Cup boats gliding along near Rangitoto. Even from a distance we could recognise them as American Magic and Emirates Team New Zealand.
“I wouldn’t mind if American Magic won,” one of us remarked.
“Me too,” I said.
I don’t think we meant it, we’re probably just hungry for some truly competitive sport this summer.
We went to Hamilton and watched the Black Caps bowl out the West Indies too easily. I went to the Mount for the first day of the test against Pakistan and watched our batsmen post a good score. But something was missing in the visiting teams. Interest at home, I suspect.
When the latest version of the America’s Cup was unveiled in a preliminary regatta just before Christmas I went to watch from North Head. The start and finish lines were right below us and from the higher points you could see the whole course. It wasn’t very long.
But it wasn’t very interesting either. The yachts zipped up and back three or four times and each race was over in about 20 minutes. You marvelled at the speed they could go, and the fact they could tack on hydrofoils, then very quickly those came to seem normal.
Team New Zealand beat each of the three challengers with ease. The races it lost or nearly lost did not worry anyone unduly. The defenders were obviously treating that regatta as practice and appeared to put themselves at a disadvantage at times to see if they could recover. They could.
Pete Montgomery’s radio commentary was coming over loudspeakers at North Head and after one such come-from-behind victory he said, “No-one has suggested they are sandbagging.”That was true, nobody had used the word.
I mustn’t lose hope for a competitive America’s Cup before it properly starts. Next weekend the challengers’ series will be under way and all past experience tells me I will be as captivated as most of the country. But caught up in the excitement I always have a nagging sense I’ve been manipulated.
The fact we could recognise those boats at all this week was a tribute to the pre-Christmas regatta. Somehow the failure to entice more than three challengers did not matter. The poor Brits could not stay on the foils and have left everyone hoping they can improve.
Next day at the beach I saw Prada out on the Gulf and American Magic again. I haven’t seen the Brits. I can only admire the show business that has aroused the nation’s interest in such a small field and one the defender looks certain to dominate.
It’s 25 years since Montgomery’s memorable call, “The America’s Cup is New Zealand’s Cup”. He didn’t know how right he would be. New Zealanders have run the show since that day in 1995, whether with Team NZ or another syndicate.
Auckland has become the design and boat building mecca for the contest and provides other syndicates with many of their crew. The New York Yacht Club’s American Magic has Dean Barker in the driving seat and Prada’s Luna Rossa is steered by our Aussie antagonist, James Spithill, who lives here.
New Zealand rules the world’s most prestigious sailing contest just as it rules the rugby world, leading the way with innovations in style and skills and exporting its surplus talent.
But unlike rugby where the pace at which the All Blacks’ play has been unquestionably good for the game, I’m not sure we’ve done the same for sailing.
I’m not a sailor but I’d be surprised if its future is on foils. If you enjoy skidding over water you’d be a wind-surfer, wouldn’t you? Crouching in the hulls of foiling yachts doesn’t look like much fun.
The New York Yacht Club has declared that should it regain the cup it held for so long, it will put the boats back in the water. I suspect other syndicates would do the same, possibly even Team NZ if it keeps the Cup. It must be disappointed that only three challengers are here.
The mistake, I think, has been the idea that the America’s Cup needs to be a spectacle. It doesn’t.
Its international prestige rests on the mystique it acquired over its 132 years at the New York Yacht Club. It stands for opulence and elitism. It sells luxury goods with glossy advertisements featuring a competing yacht, not necessarily the winner and not necessarily in an identifiable country.
We watched with the aid of computer graphics before the soul of sailing was sacrificed to the supposed attention span of spectators today.It was better when wind and water were still in play.
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