How 'sailing's All Blacks' forged an America's Cup dynasty

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Team New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
Team New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Team New Zealand's 7-3 America's Cup victory over Luna Rossa in Auckland on Wednesday confirmed the Kiwi syndicate as the dominant force in the regatta's modern era - earning them comparisons with rugby union's fabled All Blacks.

From humble beginnings in the mid-1980s, the New Zealanders have outshone better-resourced teams to contest seven of the past eight America's Cup finals, winning four of them.

The latest triumph over Italy's Luna Rossa showcased the innovation and consistency that have been the hallmarks of a team, which rival sailor Jimmy Spithill describes as the best in the world.

"To be able to race Team New Zealand on (their) home waters, it's a lot like a rugby player getting to go on the rugby field against the All Blacks at Eden Park in a Rugby World Cup final," the Luna Rossa co-helmsman said in the match lead-up.

"What an incredible privilege that is."

Unlike most syndicates vying for yachting's "Auld Mug", the oldest trophy in international sport, the New Zealanders do not have a wealthy benefactor.

Previously, the likes of billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison and Swiss pharmaceuticals magnate Ernesto Bertarelli bankrolled successful campaigns by hiring the best crews, designers and builders from around the world.

This time, British industrialist Jim Ratcliffe with Ineos Team UK and Luna Rossa's patron Patrizio Bertelli of fashion house Prada splashed the cash in a bid for America's Cup glory.

Though team finances are a closely-guarded secret, Team NZ's budget for the 2021 contest was about half that of their rivals, according to the Financial Times.

Team NZ chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge said his outfit could not match their rivals for sheer spending power.

"We'll never outmuscle some of those big teams," he said.

"We've got to be smart, we've got to out-think them we've got to come up with innovative ideas."

'Most exciting boat ever'

Team NZ chief executive Grant Dalton, brought in to revamp the syndicate after its 2003 loss, has been crucial in finding corporate sponsorship and government subsidies to keep the team afloat.

He has also shown a ruthless streak, ditching helmsman Dean Barker in the wake of a devastating 2013 and hiring rising star Peter Burling.

A major part of Team NZ's strategy has been using disruptive technology to gain an edge, sometimes with mixed results.

A lightweight, carbon-fibre mast was supposed to provide extra speed in 2003 but snapped in half as Swiss challenger Alinghi swept to a 5-0 win in Auckland.

Team New Zealand's most revolutionary move came ahead of the 2013 regatta in San Francisco when they introduced foiling, where carbon-fibre arms lift the yacht's hull from the water and it "flies" at high speed in the air.

The tactic appeared to have paid off as their catamaran shot to an 8-1 lead against Oracle Team USA but the Americans applied some technical wizardry of their own to the foil system and stormed home for a 9-8 win.

A deceptively simple change proved decisive in Bermuda in 2017, when the traditional arm grinder winches used to trim sails were replaced with leg grinders, giving the Kiwis greater speed changing their rig during races.

The latest edition has seen the New Zealanders introduce 23-metre (75-foot) monohull boats that some critics initially said would be too unstable to race.

But the spectacular boats have proved a thrilling sight off the Auckland coast and the New Zealanders, as originators of the class, have been a step ahead of their rivals in handling the hi-tech yachts.

While some old-school sailing enthusiasts have called for a return to traditional boast, Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena said last week that he wanted the giant foiling craft to remain.

"I hope whoever wins keeps going with them because it's the most exciting boat I've ever sailed in my life," he said.

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