With four America's Cup wins under their belts, Team New Zealand can now claim to be the most successful America's Cup team in modern history but how did they get there?
Team New Zealand’s latest successful America’s Cup defence in March 2021 was their fourth America’s Cup victory; two as Defender two as a challenger. New Zealand is only the second nation to successfully challenge and defend the America’s Cup twice.
The personnel may have changed over the years, but the Emirates Team New Zealand that won the America’s Cup in Auckland in 2021 is very much a continuation of the Team New Zealand who first won the cup back in 1995.
That New Zealand team – sailing under the flag of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron – has won four America’s Cups is impressive stuff and surely moves them into position as the greatest modern America’s Cup team. Since the 137 year domination of the event by the New York Yacht Club from 1851 – 1983 there are few teams that have managed to win on multiple occasions.
Perhaps, though, more impressive than the number of outright America’s Cup wins the Kiwis have taken is their consistent high level in the event throughout a significant span of time.
Since their first America’s Cup win in 1995, Team New Zealand has been in every America’s Cup match – excluding a Deed of Gift match in 2010 which saw Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team USA challenging Ernesto Bertelli’s Defender Alinghi.
To look back at the New Zealand team’s history in the America’s Cup is to look at something of a relentless machine. In 1995, they won the Cup, in 2000 they successfully defended, in 2003 they lost, in 2007 they won the challenger selection series but lost the Cup, in 2013 they won the challenger selection series and were a point away from victory in the Cup when they lost to oracle Team USA, in 2017 they won, and finally in 2021 successfully defended.
All of which is to say they have been in every America’s Cup match it was possible to be a part of since 1995. That is a phenomenal achievement from any nation, but for one composed of just under 5 million people and in a relatively isolated position in the South Pacific, it is all the more impressive.
What is behind New Zealand’s sailing success?
There are a huge many threads that could be considered a part of the kiwi success in the America’s Cup and in sailing more broadly.
Clearly as an Island nation there is a strong maritime heritage within the country. As in Britain, New Zealand’s sailors at the Olympics are often a reliable source of medals. In fact, Olympic sailing represents the country’s most successful Olympic sport.
Boat ownership in the country is high too, with some reports – albeit hard to confirm – claiming the country has the highest boat ownership per capita in the world.
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The country has a thriving marine sector and is known for the plethora of companies based there who can deliver extremely high tech materials and construction. But whether this is a factor in the country producing so many great sailors, or as a result of that fact is difficult to define.
America’s Cup success
On the one hand the factors mentioned that make New Zealand such a successful nation in sailing clearly can be seen as contributors to their America’s Cup successes. On the other, a glance at the British failure to win back a trophy they first raced for in 1851 implies that an island nation, which produces strong sailors and which has a solid maritime sector, does not an America’s Cup winner make.
To get a handle on the Kiwi success over the years, it is important to look back at their first America’s Cup win back way back in 1995 and the boat that brought them that victory, NZL 32, otherwise known as Black Magic.
The Kiwis arrived at the 29th America’s Cup with a pair of boats both designed by a conglomerate of designers, including: Tom Schnackenberg, Doug Peterson, Laurie Davidson, David Egan, Peter Jackson, Maury Leyland, David Alan-Williams, Anthony Lehmann, Richard Karn, Wayne Smith, Mike Drumond, Chris Mitchell and Neil Wilkinson.
The idea was to produce a yacht that suited the crew, catering to their specific wants and needs. Although not an entirely new concept, this varied design team, which worked alongside a talented sailing team produced an International America’s Cup Class (IACC) yacht that was far superior to all others.
Black Magic won the America’s Cup 5-0 and was clearly able to outperform any other IACC – although Black Magic II (NZL 38) was a close second and the team used her in the early part of the Challenger Selection Series.
It’s an oft repeated cliche that the America’s Cup is won by the team with the fastest boat, but this is something of a simplification. You may well have the fastest boat, but if that boat cannot be sailed to its full potential then you will never be able to unleash the potential in it.
If Black Magic in 1995 had shown the importance of a boat that is designed with input from the sailors and conceived as a fast boat that could often be sailed to her maximum potential, then the team’s boat for their defence in 2003 showed almost the opposite.
The team developed a fast boat, but up against Alinghi in the final they were plagued by breakages and problems throughout the series. The Kiwis were forced to retire from the first race of the series after a plethora of issues, including problems with the rigging and the boat’s propensity to take on large volumes of water when heeled in the windy weather.
In race four they were forced to retire again when their mast snapped mid race. And even though they did finish the final race of the series, they broke a spinnaker pole during that race too. In pure boatspeed terms, they were probably not that far off the pace of Alinghi but multiple gear failures meant they could rarely show their potential performance.
Things were not helped in the 2003 edition of the America’s Cup when key members of the successful defence team of 2000 had been headhunted and brought over to the Alinghi team. Alinghi would also beat the Kiwis in the 2007 edition of the Cup, with both teams showing fairly even boatspeeds.
Another key lesson for the team came in 2013. With the America’s Cup transitioning into 72ft catamarans under a rule that was specifically designed to prevent hydrofoiling, New Zealand’s design team alongside their sailing team managed to find a loophole that would allow the boats to hydrofoil.
In secret the sailors tested a concept on a 33ft catamaran and deemed it doable for the big boat, giving the designers the approval they needed to go for it.
With the exception on the Italian team, Luna Rossa (who had agreed to buy the new Zealander’s first boat to use for their challenge) no other team was planning on foiling their boat.
That is until they saw images of the Kiwis foiling their 72ft cat.
In hindsight, given how much quicker a foiling AC72 was compared to a non foiling one, had the Kiwis kept their foiling under wraps long enough to make it impossible for other teams to copy, they almost certainly would have won the America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013.
But with the cat out of the bag a little too early, other teams, including defender Oracle Team USA were able to copy and improve on the concept. The Cup was a thriller and the Kiwis got to within one race win before Oracle finally managed to unleash the full potential of their foiling package and went on to successfully defend. Perhaps another few days before the world realising what New Zealand had planned would have seen them take the win.
It is, then, hardly surprising that when Team New Zealand had developed what they considered a revolutionarily quick boat for the next America’s Cup in 2017, they kept it under wraps until the last moment.
While other teams trained against one another in Bermuda, the Kiwis stayed home, launching their boat and shipping it to Bermuda very late indeed. They dominated the event, winning by 7 races to Oracle Team USA’s 1.
The latest America’s Cup sailed in Auckland saw the kiwis defend the Auld Mug and though both they and the challenger, Luna Rossa, displayed similar boatspeeds around the course, New Zealand had clearly built the faster of the two boat – Luna Rossa helmsman Jimmy Spithill likened their experience of going up against the Kiwis to ‘bringing a knife to a gun fight’.
All coming together
Clearly you can’t win the America’s Cup without some impressive sailors, and New Zealand has shown over the years to have a great many of those. You also can’t win the Cup without a decent level of funding and Team New Zealand has proved adept at both generating commercial sponsorship and making often tight budgets go incredibly far.
They also remain, uniquely, funded by the New Zealand tax payer to varying degrees over the years. Indeed, the New Zealand Government has already agreed to stump up some cash to help the team stay together while the finer details of the 37th America’s Cup are ironed out with the new Challenger of Record, INEOS Team UK.
These are all important factors and over the years have proved their worth. Having a strong sailing team means little if that team can be headhunted from under your nose – as was the case for the 2003 America’s Cup. To keep the team together, you need funding in place to ensure you can put that team on a contract.
And it is this ability to learn over the years and keep improving as a unit that has made the New Zealand team so strong.
In the current DNA of Team New Zealand sits the experience of decades of cup racing. Each failure or mistake rectified in the future, each wrong decision informing the next campaign to make a team that is incredibly strong.
Early on the team realised the importance of designing a boat that could be sailed to its maximum. To this day the sailing team works closely alongside the design team. The key here is how they work as a unit, so if the designers come up with a winning concept that might be a Cup winner, the sailors have enough trust in the design department to try and figure out a way to make it possible to sail to its maximum potential, as can be shown in their 33ft test foiler ahead of the 2013 Cup.
The design team have enough faith in the sailors, to know that if they can’t find a way to make it work for the sailors, the concept will be dropped quickly and another route investigated.
They have also learned the importance of thinking outside the box in their solutions – partly a product of the design / sailor interaction – and of keeping their direction secret until the last minute. It is no surprise in late 2020, Emirates Team New Zealand were the last team to launch their second AC75.
In short, this team has been learning, adapting and triumphing since that first Cup win 26 years ago. They have had failures over the years, but even those failures were not abject, merely a case of not winning the ultimate prize. And they have grown from those failures to become what we see today. It’s going to take a lot for anyone to beat them.
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