The 1986/87 America's Cup Campaign
In the summer of 1986/87 New Zealand nearly did the unimaginable: Winning the America’s Cup.
Winning the cup, now seems normal, but in the early 1980s It was unthinkable. In our country of three million souls there were very few hyper rich. Everyone was OK, but there weren’t many who had so much money, that they could splash it around on a whim. There were no Maseratis or Lamborghinis’ in New Zealand.
The idea of mixing it with industrialists and entrepreneurs from overseas seemed ludicrous. The only thing that made it less so was that the next regatta was to be held in Fremantle, rather than distant New York.
I remember being fixated on a small black and white TV screen as the Australian boat ghosted across the finish line and ended the New York Yacht Club’s 130-year winning streak.
That was in 1983, and it was suggested at the time, that this would be a chance for us to have a tilt at the cup. I thought that was unlikely.
The yachting fraternity in New Zealand wasn’t able to see their way clear to mounting a campaign.
If not for Belgian born, Sydney based, businessman, Marcel Fachler, the March 1984 closing date for entries would have passed, and there might never have been a Team New Zealand. He put his money where his heart was, and on the final day, from his own pocket, paid the $16,000 entry fee.
He then travelled to Auckland and told the commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht club that they were in the cup.
Of course, the commodore raised the issue of somewhere in the region of seven million dollars needed to mount a campaign.
Fachlers, kept the ball rolling, but he didn’t have bottomless pockets. He handed the reins over to merchant banker Michael Faye, and Faye committed 100% to the project.
Compared to the finance of the other challengers, we were minnows, but what we lacked in wealth we made up for in talent. Faye pulled together an all-star design team of Ron Holland, Laurie Davidson and Bruce Farr. Unlike America or Britain, in New Zealand it was normal to join a yacht club regardless of your income or social status. The pool of potential crew was not limited to those who had rich parents. Pugnacious Chris Dickson was chosen to be skipper.
A host of other personnel were required, but these were easily found. Being a part of something so audacious and exciting was compelling for all the right reasons.
Since 1972, all the twelve meter America’s cup boats had been made of Aluminium (Before 1972, they were made of wood). By the 1980s Fibreglass had become the main material used in the construction of pleasure craft, so New Zealand builders had plenty of expertise with that material. The design team could see plenty of reasons why they should build in fibreglass, and no reason why not to. Fiberglass could be shaped to perfection. It was more ridged. And the distribution of weight could be fine-tuned.
We turned up at Freemantle with our two boats, KZ3 and KZ5, and these were soon to be known as the plastic fantastic.
KZ7s arrival in Fremantle
Our performance exceeded everyone’s expectations, winning race after race. With each victory, cup fever mounted in New Zealand. KZ3 and KZ5 were identical. KZ7 was an improved version, and was dubbed ‘Kiwi Magic’. Having won all but one of the thirty-eight races we sailed in Lois Vuitton challenger series, we had booked our place in the final against Dennis Connor. Connor had lost against Australia in 1983, but had won the cup twice before that.
New Zealand was the hot favourite to win the best of seven match-up to determine who would race Australia.
The first race was on January 7th. It was high summer, and on a typical summer’s day ‘the Fremantle Doctor’ would boom in off the Indian when the land heated up. It’s called ‘The Doctor’ because this welcome wind gives relief from the heat.
‘The Doctor’ was exactly what the doctor ordered for Connor: Boisterous wind and big waves. Just like Hawaii, where he and his crew had done their preparation.
In the high winds, Connor’s boat ‘Stars and Stripes’ was faster up-wind, than KZ7.
Dickson and his crew were, however faster through their tacks.
Connor sailed masterfully, never giving Dickson a chance to break into the lead. Except once.
I was fortunate to have been at Chez Eelco to watch on Eelco’s relatively large screen colour TV, our only win in the finals series. Eelco whooped when a shackle broke on Stars and Stripes, and their spinnaker came down, enabling us to slip past. Otherwise, the Americans got the better of us, winning four races to our one.
They then went on to a clean sweep against Australia.
Our 1987 America’s cup dream ended. We fell well short in 1992, but finally won in 1995.
The whole country was on board during the 1986 challenge. This was also the case in 1995 (remember Peter Blakes red socks). Heart and passion triumphed over money.
The same was true in 2000, but after our win that year, Team New Zealand fragmented and the cup returned to being what it had always been, exciting, but strictly a battle of the big spenders.