How ‘Losing’ is also a Win

An email from an American friend, who once ribbed me about Australia losing the America’s Cup in Perth, made an important point about this year’s cup final.

Up 8 -1 and then loss, unbelievable. And the founder of Oracle only spent 500 million to secure the cup. I don’t know why anyone even bothers to watch, it’s as bad as our elections.

This time I note that he is not ribbing me about New Zealand’s loss now that I live in New Zealand. The point he made about the obscene amounts of money poured into an Oracle win probably eclipses many times over the money that went into Emirates Team New Zealand. However Larry Ellison’s estimated $500 million Oracle sponsorship in his quest to win, and now defend the cup, covers the last 11 years. Even so, it is a good reason why there were only three America’s Cup challengers this year.

This, combined with Oracle playing their ‘postponement’ card and securing four-time Olympic gold medallist, Sir Ben Ainslie, as tactician midway through the series when they were struggling against New Zealand’s superior sailing, makes me wonder whether any other country can ever hope to win the America’s Cup. It is a rich man’s sport, as this series has so blatantly demonstrated.

Russell Coutts, former New Zealand America’s Cup winner, and now chief executive of Oracle Team USA, admitted, “We had our backs to the wall and knew we needed to close the gap fast. In some ways, we were fortunate the series dragged on.” The decision to use their wildcard to delay a race meant they could “work on stuff and regroup.”

A sailor myself, I go back to the day my heart fell for New Zealand. Ironically, it was not a day they lost a race. It was the day they convincingly showed their superior skills as yachtsmen during a race cancelled because of the 40-minute time limit. In my mind, Team New Zealand both won and lost the America’s Cup that day.

Racing on Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, New Zealand, with the Harbour Bridge in teh background

For those of you who are not sailors, I can say that after some of my own frustrating times on the helm trying to win a race, that it takes great skill and concentration to race in light winds. For Dean Barker to pull so far ahead of Oracle that day is testament to his superior sailing ability. It was the day they would have secured the Cup if the race wasn’t canned.

Team New Zealand arrived back on home soil yesterday to a hero’s welcome, still feeling gutted that they had to return empty handed. And since they are probably still harbouring the erroneous belief that the “winner takes all” in this event, maybe they need a little reminder that they have been winners all the way – even in this ‘defeat’.

Perhaps their disappointment has obscured the fact that they at least won the Louis Vuitton Cup to become this year’s challenger for the America’s Cup. It gave them a chance to show the world their exceptional sailing as well as technological skill in handling the biggest and most stunning of the America’s Cup racing machines we have ever seen. Without the masterful way they sailed their 72 foot catamaran with many technological improvements to increase its speed, the event would not have drawn the huge crowds to the waterfront to watch the races live, or keep people glued to screens around the world to marvel at the spectacle of both speed and awe-inspiring technology in this year’s cup challenge.

The biggest win in my eyes is that their integrity remains intact over how they conducted themselves overall in these races. And I have a suspicion that many people would agree with me. The fact that Oracle Team USA were docked two points and had three crew members banned in the most severe penalties in the 162-year history the America’s Cup, will surely dull some of its shine.

But there are also many other wins. Just the chance to skipper or crew on one of these technically sophisticated and fast sailing machines would be the experience of a lifetime. A thrilling experience! The level of skill needed to sail these huge catamarans leaves me in awe of Team New Zealand’s efforts. There is no denying the fact that they are world leaders in yachting. And let’s not forget that Team New Zealand was almost ‘100% pure’, with only two Australian outsiders as crew.

Let’s also not forget that both Oracle and Team New Zealand raced on catamarans built in New Zealand. What a win for our boat-building and marine industries, which should see some spin-off from the world-wide exposure of these state of the art sailing machines.

Then to receive the welcome that was waiting for Dean Barker and the team at Auckland airport says how much New Zealand was in awe of their efforts and the gutsiness of their sailing prowess. They inspired so many people – even seven-year-old Harry Wurr, who watched the final races from Shed 10 on Auckland’s waterfront. And he just had to get up at 3.30 am to make sure he had a front row spot at Auckland Airport to welcome back this extraordinary team and congratulate them.

Still clear in my mind, although it happened many years ago, is a talk I had one evening with a skipper upset that he didn’t win a yacht race that day. He also believed that there was only “one winner.” I asked him why so few yachts from the marina, where our yachts were berthed, had raced that day. And did he notice that many of them had hulls covered in barnacles?

The sobering truth is that sailing is scary. So many people think it looks easy. But when they go out and buy a yacht and set sail into the sunset, the first fright the sea gives them can send many scurrying for the safety of a marina. And there their yachts sit gathering barnacles for years. Sailing is not for the faint-hearted. I reminded this unhappy skipper that all those who had taken place in the yacht race were winners, for they had dared to cast off the mooring lines and test their skills against the wind and sea, and against each other.

So in my mind, Dean Barker and Team New Zealand are all winners – whether or not they brought back a lump of silver to prove it. For a country with just over 4 million people, this was like a David and Goliath situation. Team New Zealand did their country proud.

However all that aside, it seems a little rich to me that the New Zealand government can pour $36 million into the America’s Cup challenge while we have so many pressing social challenges at home. Perhaps it is time for the government to prioritise its spending and leave the funding of yacht racing to the current sponsorship of billionaires. Surely thirty-six million dollars could instead go towards developing winning strategies to reduce our shocking levels of child poverty, child abuse, and domestic violence.

This is one challenge we cannot possibly win if we continue our current strategy of ‘choking’ in domestic affairs. What would it take for us to rise to such a challenge, to become world leaders in creating positive outcomes for hundreds of thousands of people?

And now as cup fever fades, perhaps we can come up with some winning ideas to make sailing a more inclusive sport again instead of the exclusive event the America’s Cup has become. Perhaps New Zealanders might even consider organising their own New Zealand Cup. I could think of no better place than racing in the Hauraki Gulf on yachts that demonstrate New Zealand technology and ingenuity at a much more affordable price. That may be the yachting community’s next challenge.

A yacht race in Auckland

You don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy yacht racing in such a beautiful location. In fact, you do not need to outlay a thing except for wet weather gear and maybe some gloves. There are plenty of skippers looking for crew.

© Juliet Bonnay


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