The lonely America's Cup enthusiast

20:41, Jun 13 2013

As a New Zealander living in America for coming up three years now, I'm used to the feeling of everything I ever considered important not registering as even the smallest blip on the most outer reaches of the American radar.

It is common sense that as a native of a small country living far away in a big country, my cultural framework of references is going to seem marginal at points.  

I think of it like this. Wherever you are in the world, that country is in the centre of the maps that are printed there. New Zealand often doesn't show up on American maps. But I'm okay with this.

For some, probably naïve reason, I thought the America's Cup was the one exception to the rule. Oracle sank huge money into winning the Cup and bringing it back to America and Larry Ellison had made a show of bringing it to San Francisco. It shifted into prime waterfront real estate. This had to be a big deal event to people. 

About the time that they started holding the challenger series events in San Francisco on the smaller 45-foot catamarans in August and October last year, I was waiting for Cup fever to sweep through the city. It's called America's Cup after all, right?

But as the boats moved into the harbour and activity started to pick up, there were no dinner table discussions. No one was picking my brain about Team New Zealand's chances. People were merely bemused about how much money San Francisco had spent as a city to get the Cup and were startled to see firsthand about how much I knew about yachting. I'm not an outdoors guy.


No one knew much about the America's Cup, but no one knew anything at all about New Zealand's history with the America's Cup, which seemed even worse.

During the first challenger series in August last year, I was walking around the temporary America's Cup Village set up on the Marina Green in San Francisco. There was a large outdoor museum covering the America's Cup history. Out of a couple of dozen exhibits, there was one measly small display to honor "the New Zealand years".

I fumed.

I don't know if I even appreciated until this past year just how much of an impression New Zealand's 1990s America's Cup triumphs had made on me as a child.

I can remember being 10 when we won the America's Cup in 1995 in San Diego. The races would invariably be on early-ish in the morning. The whole Sir Peter Blake Red Socks jingle is etched in my cultural memory. My Dad bought a pair of them. I can remember thinking that Dennis Conner was about the most vile heel to ever walk the earth.

I can't remember being too into the yachting itself, or really appreciating the history of New Zealand's America's Cup journey through the 1980s to get to where we were, but I do remember being very taken by how into it everyone was. The thought of little wee us defeating massive old America seemed about the coolest thing possible. It is one of the first times I can recall engaging with the idea of America as a concept and definitely my earliest experience of a shared, national, cultural moment.

Standing in the midst of that exhibit last August, childishly I felt cheated, like part of my personal history was being disrespected.

Yachting in America, I have discovered, is a niche activity. The America's Cup will attract a lot of international visitors and some Americans from different yachting hubs across the country. For the vast majority of San Franciscans, their involvement with the cup will begin and end with the odd gaze harbourward to appreciate how striking the boats are (they really are something).

It's exciting to me and maybe you whether we win or lose, but most people here won't notice either way.

It makes me think back to when I was 10 and feeling like we'd stolen something from America. But now I find out that what we took, nobody really missed.

Everything about where we're from is marginal here. I thought there was an exception, but I was wrong.

I've come to embrace the newly discovered yachting enthusiast in me. It feels like a new link to home. Are all New Zealanders secretly an authority on this?

Attending Team New Zealand's media launch a month or so back (Shameless plug: I'll be writing features on their efforts throughout the cup for Metro, so go buy a magazine!), an American journalist had a query and I helped her out and before long I was telling her about Sir Peter Blake's red socks and his eventual tragic murder, the national perceptions of Russell Coutts' defection, the average New Zealander's relationship to water and the economic importance of the Cup to us a country.

I never knew how much I knew...

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