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Birth of New Zealand's America's Cup history

TOM HUNT
Last updated 05:00 21/09/2013
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THE SOUNDTRACK: New Zealand celebrities, including Billy T James and Dave Dobbyn, sang on a track to support the Americas Cup effort.

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He'd never been to New Zealand when, in 1984, Belgian-born Australian commodity broker Marcel Fachler wrote out a cheque for $16,000 to enter the country in its first America's Cup campaign, in Fremantle.

Nor – before sending off the cheque – did he ask anyone in New Zealand if they actually wanted to enter.

He was, in his own words, "just a crazy person who thought New Zealand should be in it".

"When I got the confirmation New Zealand was accepted, I flew to Auckland and met with Don Brooke, the vice-commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, and told him what I did," he later explained.

"He looked at me and his mouth fell open and he asked if I could repeat what I'd just said. So I told him: 'You are in the Cup.' "

Now, all the squadron had to do was fund a campaign.

In California, a young sailor called Chris Dickson was working at a sail-maker's between racing yachts around the world. One day his office phone rang.

The voice at the other end asked him to fly back to New Zealand to talk to a banker named Michael Fay about entering a team in the America's Cup.

"I had never heard of Michael Fay," Dickson said this week amid moving house and television commitments for the latest America's Cup regatta.

He was cynical. America's Cup campaigns were then, as now, huge and costly. They offered to send a plane ticket for him to fly out on a Friday night, talk to Mr Fay then return to California on Sunday.

"I put my phone down and thought I would never hear from them. The next day a courier arrived with a business-class ticket."

Mr Fay clearly meant business. Once Dickson was in New Zealand, the merchant banker said: "Chris, you worry about the sailing, I will worry about the money."

By the end of the weekend Dickson, then 23, had signed on as skipper. "He put the money together and we put together a great team."

The design of the boats, built from fibreglass rather than aluminium, would court controversy, most notably from Stars and Stripes skipper Dennis Conner who asked: "Why would you want to build a fibreglass 12-metre unless you wanted to cheat?"

But for the New Zealand team, the decision to go plastic – the three boats KZ3, KZ5, then later and most famously, KZ7 were nicknamed "plastic fantastics" – was an easy one, says Dickson.

"In New Zealand, boats were being built out of fibreglass. New Zealand had never built 12m [racing] yachts ... so the question was the other way.

"Why would you build an aluminium yacht? ... That was old technology."

The decision was inspired – at least until New Zealand came up against Stars and Stripes, losing the Louis Vuitton Cup to Conner's team 4-1 in January 1987.

Until then, the New Zealand team had looked unbeatable. On October 5, 1986, they won their first round-robin race, thrashing Heart of America by 6min 29sec.

They would go on to win 37 of 38 races in the round robins – not bad for a country on its first America's Cup campaign.

Not so good for Fremantle, though. As pundits starting picking New Zealand to win the Louis Vuitton Cup, forcing a New Zealand versus Australia America's Cup final series, Americans started heading home with their money.

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But by mid-January, it turned out Conner's team was far from out of the race.

The thousands of facsimiled messages of support from New Zealand – sent free of charge from post offices – were not enough to defeat the highly experienced Conner.

On January 19, New Zealand's dream ended. Defeat is defeat and "losing is never any fun", Dickson says, but there were positives.

Perhaps most notable, given the excitement of the current America's Cup showdown, Kiwis were now into yachting.

"If you do something well, you are going to keep doing it," Dickson reckons. "The whole country could see this is something we could be best in the world at."

It would be in 1995, and after two more unsuccessful challenges, before New Zealand finally proved our sailors could beat the world.

MOTLEY CREW PROVIDED THE SOUNDTRACK

The 1980s were a decade of celebrities coming together to sing for a cause. So with New Zealand's first tip at the Auld Mug going on in Freemantle, a who's who of New Zealand singers, sportspeople, and television personalities got together in the Auckland War Memorial Museum marae to record the Sailing Away video.

The likes of Dave Dobbyn, Billy T James, Tim Finn, Barry Crump, Annie Crummer, and Hammond Gamble were there.

There were also the unlikely – gruff rugby legend Alex "Grizz" Wyllie, kayaker Ian Ferguson, and cricketer Jeremy Coney.

"It was an eclectic mix," television personality and choir member Roger Gascoigne laughed this week. The actual singers in the group had already recorded the Charlie Sutherland-written lyrics.

"The rest of us were just added on really. We were just the celebrities ... you have got to remember it was a two-channel world in those days.

"They just assembled the most astounding array."

Gascoigne was wearing a "very loud, look-at-me shirt" so got a bigger role than most of the choir, walking out on stage with Herbs.

The song was New Zealand's top-selling single of 1986, spending nine weeks at No 1. was Living Doll by Cliff Richard and the Young Ones, then Dobbyn's Slice of Heaven.

- The Dominion Post

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