On the 6th of February 2000 history was made in New Zealand. Was this a break through in race relations on our long disputed Waitangi Day celebrations ?...no. All eyes were glued to either the TV set or crowding on boats on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour to watch the penultimate race of the 9 race Challenger Series for the Louis Vuitton Cup!
What's the Louis Vuitton Cup you might ask ... this is the series of yacht races between challengers for what is considered the ultimate prize in match racing yachting... the America's Cup. The winner of this series has the honour to go on and challenge the holders of the Cup to a nine race series to see who holds this prize for the next 4 years.
The scene was set with light winds having everyone on tenderhooks 'til the start. The series was locked at four all and it's the top of the ninth... oops - wrong sport - right tension! The Italian entry Prada was taking on America One. Whoever won this race was going on to challenge New Zealand who are the current America Cup holders. The winds came and the boats began their tacking duel to the start. Prada inched ahead. As the boats surged around the course Prada began to edge even further ahead. This is a sport of precision teamwork and winning can be by seconds. As the race progressed everyone eyed the sets of the spinnakers, the anxious glances of the captains, the pumping intense physical activity of the grinders... TV is such a wonder with all these onboard cameras. On
these multimillion dollar boats one shackle failure can spell disaster. State of the art screen graphics gave viewers an overview of the positions of the boats against each other and the marks.
Knowledgeable people and excited commentators rattled and prattled on about windshifts and gear failure and tactical decisions that might be made. There's 'luffs' and 'beats to windward' and lots of incomprehensible nautical terms beyond the ken of most of us but as the graphics showed Prada - elegant and trim in grey - was inching ahead. And the Kiwis were all holding their breath and watching with the avidness of any sports fan. Crowded in living rooms, across the harbour, and watching from big screens in pubs and bars and cafes across the country. This was a day that history could be made. Over the other side of the world the entire Italian nation was doing the same. And then... it was all over - Prada had won by 49 seconds over America One. The crowd went wild, the champagne sprayed, the Italians hugged each other and cried, the cameras discreetly left the losers to console themselves. History was made because for the first time in 145 years of the Cup's history an American syndicate is neither defending nor challenging for this prize!
What is it about this Cup that makes it so special? America's Cup yachting is about money and elitism... but what professional sport isn't these days? It is also a contest with the rules firmly stacked in the Cup holder's favours. But it is also a sporting contest that has galvanised this country 'cos to win it in the first place was a real David and Goliath encounter just because of the way the rules are set up. When New Zealand won in San Diego four years ago there was an unprecedented out pouring of National pride and achievement and incredible spin off effects in our yachting and boat-building industries right up to this years racing. More significantly the advances in the telecommunications and computer graphics have made this sport a dry land spectator one, where the chess-like tactics are explained to the landlubbers, and the onboard cameras can show the precision, speed and skill involved in racing these boats to a peak level.
The finals start on February 19th and each day as the boats race, work will slow to a standstill in offices and factories, radios will be played and the Nation will hold it's breath 'cos history can be made again. No country,
other than America, has held the America's Cup for more than one period. What can I say ......... Go New Zealand !!!!