Loyalty & Cyanide

This America¿s Cup had old grudges and new records, broken boats and brilliant sailing, tedium and terrorist threats. But when the smoke cleared, the outcome for Team New Zealand was simply toxic

In keeping with the party’s circus theme, colorful clowns wielded tequila-filled squirt guns, and into one gaping mouth after another they dispensed a long, burning rivulet of gold. The big boat shed had been transformed into a concert hall, and live bands entertained hundreds of revelers. Out by the water, before the sparkling skyline of Auckland, New Zealand, a full-size merry-go-round and its partying passengers spun circles in the night. And on a nearby backstage, a pair of transvestites were . . . well, never mind.

This surreal scene was at the syndicate headquarters of the Alinghi Challenge of Switzerland. Hours earlier, on a brilliant early-March afternoon, Alinghi had won the America's Cup by the startling score of 5-zip by unceremoniously dispatching a remarkably outclassed Team New Zealand (TNZ) defense effort in the series' fifth and final race.
After a 152-year hiatus, the America's Cup was bound for Europe in the unlikely grasp of a new, landlocked defender.

The Alinghi circus and its billionaire ringleader, pharmaceutical magnate Ernesto Bertarelli, had indeed come to town, and now the Cup was headed--both literally and figuratively--far, far away. A few days later, his $80 million antipodal adventure having concluded in such
excellent style, Bertarelli boarded a chartered plane in company with sailing's most prestigious, if gaudy, prize; the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron's eight-year Cup stewardship was well and truly over.

But that was merely the final act in a maritime drama that had unfolded with countless subplots about boat design, sailing prowess, the specter of terrorism, and even national loyalty. For on that last count, Bertarelli was hardly a lone accomplice in Alinghi’s clinical Cup heist. Leading his charge were a pair of expatriate Kiwis named Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth--the modern-day Butch and Sundance of the America’s Cup--the men who helped bring the vaunted prize to New Zealand, who defended it once for their homeland, and who, in record-setting fashion, would ultimately and controversially spirit it away.

Bertarelli threw his victory party on March 2. The next morning, New Zealand woke up with a raging hangover and a single difficult question: How in the world did this happen?

The Setup
When racing began a fortnight earlier, Team New Zealand seemed a confident bunch, and with just cause. The primary source of their outward optimism was their radical yacht, NZL-82. The brainchild of a design team led by syndicate chief Tom Schnackenberg (aka "Schnack"), the boat sported a much-ballyhooed hull appendage, or "hula," along the underbody of its stern counter.

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| The New Zealand faithful pinned their hopes on a radical hull appendage, or "hula," the outline of which is clearly visible when the boat is hauled.* * *|

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| Also dubbed the "Kiwi clip-on" (sailing writers couldn’t stop nicknaming the thing), the hula was essentially a second skin attached on centerline and designed to probe a loophole in the International America’s Cup Class (IACC) design rule, enhance waterline length, and, ultimately, increase boat speed. "Hula, hula, hula," went the waterfront chant, "New Zealand’s gonna do ya."

But the hula wasn’t the only TNZ design innovation. Equally important were the tall, unprecedented four-spreader rig and the remarkable 20-foot-long ballast bulb affixed to the keel to reportedly account for nearly 80 percent of the yacht’s full-up 25 tons. In both its vast length and narrow, flat-bottomed cigar shape, it was far different from appendages employed by any of the current generation of IACC boats. Among other benefits, the bulb’s mighty heft and purported stability allowed its designers to press on more sail area than Alinghi. "There’s no use being timid about these things," said the TNZ appendage designer, Nick Holroyd.

"We think we understand the design game," said Schnack on the eve of competition. "If we understand it as well as we think we do, we should have a little edge." In that moment, there was no reason to doubt him. In the previous two America’s Cups--their successful challenge against Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes off San Diego in 1995, and their subsequent defense versus Italy’s Prada Challenge in 2000--the Kiwis were undefeated (10-0), thanks in no small part to their decided advantage in boat speed. And, as Conner once said, "The America’s Cup is all about boat design; the only reason they race is to keep score."

Now, Schnackenberg was essentially saying he and his team had taken that proven design prowess in the America’s Cup arena and ratcheted it up yet another notch. Coming from Schnack--a qualified nuclear physicist, one of the primary contributors to the burgeoning TNZ dynasty, and the man Conner once called "the best brain in yachting"--these were powerful words.

On the other hand, by virtue of their victorious 28-3 on-the-water record in the Louis Vuitton challenger series leading up to the Cup, it was clear that Alinghi’s yacht, SUI-64, was no pushover. Though principal designer Rolf Vrolijk and his technicians hadn’t pushed the design envelope to the extent the Kiwis had, they’d created a fine all-around boat and introduced significant innovations, particularly in the rig and sail plan. Alinghi was responsible for, among other things, the square-topped, windsurfer-style mainsail that had become the standard cut of main for the other challengers as well as TNZ.

Still, going into the event, when it came to the matter of yacht design, few knowledgeable observers believed Alinghi could possibly have come up with the quicker ride.

The TNZ sailing team could only hope this was true, for the pressure on crewmembers was enormous. On the morning of February 15, the first day of racing, in an editorial under the headline "Pray for a fair wind and a faster boat," the country’s leading newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, summed up the prevailing national sentiment: "The new young [TNZ] crew, mostly untested in the America’s Cup, carry the hopes of every loyal New Zealander as they set out to defeat the heroes of yesteryear. . . . To be honest, we don’t really want a good match. We want to keep the Cup."

Expectations were high, and the stage was set for the revamped hometown team to rise to fresh glory. Or, of course, to suffer a terrible fall.

The Salvos
It was a glorious day befitting the start of something big. The sky overhead was blue and clear, and the beautiful Hauraki Gulf was flecked with whitecaps, products of a puffy, 20- to 25-knot southerly breeze gifted by the passage of an overnight front. Into the roiled sea steamed a massive spectator fleet estimated at nearly 3,000 vessels, the majority of which flew black flags with the same one-word message as that displayed on the giant banner streaming from a helicopter aloft: Loyal.

The title of a tune by popular Kiwi singer Dave Dobbyn, "Loyal" had not only become the TNZ theme song; it'd also become the catchword by which the very nature of the imminent competition was being defined.
To many, the protagonists were as clearly drawn as the good guys and the bad guys in a spaghetti Western. On one side, you had Coutts and Butterworth and the small band of fellow New Zealand Cup veterans whose services Bertarelli had acquired to form the strong core of the international Alinghi team. Or, in local vernacular, the traitors.

On the other, you had 29-year-old TNZ skipper Dean Barker--Coutts’ former understudy, to whom he’d graciously handed the wheel in the fifth and deciding race of the 2000 Cup against Prada--and his young, fresh-faced crew of sailors who, in the eyes of their supporters, had resisted the cash call of challenging overseas billionaires and remained true to the patriotic cause of defending the Cup for proud New Zealand. The loyalists.

When the gun was fired to start Race One, however, finally they were all just sailors, and it appeared to be time to discover who were the best. But, as events quickly proved, that would have to wait for another day, for the first race, beset by Kiwi gear failure, was little more than a TNZ comedy of errors, finished almost before it began.

Just minutes into the inaugural upwind leg, NZL-82 began to ship truckloads of water, estimated at upwards of six tons, over its cockpit rails. The alarming image of a Kiwi crewman up to his knees in aqua and bailing frantically with the plastic bucket that doubled as the onboard head--and failing to make the least bit of headway--would be a lasting one.

But that was just the first fallen domino. Minutes later, the outboard end of the slim carbon boom broke away, rendering the mainsail powerless. Then the genoa’s tack fitting exploded, and the headsail peeled loose from the stay. An attempt to rehoist the sail up the damaged headstay track was an exercise in futility. Some 20 minutes into their second defense, the Kiwis unceremoniously retired from Race One, and the Swiss yacht sailed the course unchallenged to take a 1-0 lead. "Once the boom broke, we knew it was going to be a struggle," said Barker. "It went from bad to worse."

Though he didn’t know it at the time, the next day’s loss would be even more painful. After trailing Alinghi up the first weather leg of Race Two in an ideal, 12-knot northerly sea breeze, the Kiwis overtook SUI-64 on the subsequent run and opened up a 34-second lead at the bottom mark.

"The hula is a rocket ship!" bellowed New Zealand television commentator Peter Lester.

But it was wishful thinking; a favorable wind shift and better breeze on the left side of the racecourse were the true reasons behind the successful come-from-behind maneuver.

Still, when the two boats rounded the buoy after the third and final beat and hoisted spinnakers for the closing run to the finish, NZL-82 held what appeared to be a comfortable 26-second lead. It proved to be a mirage. Sailing under a flatter chute that more than compensated for the Kiwis’ long waterline and extra sail area, Alinghi, in a devastating display of skill, speed, and power, climbed over TNZ, jibed in front, and held on to win the race by a mere seven seconds. The score: Alinghi 2, TNZ 0.

"We’re disappointed," said Barker, "but I think we can take a lot of positives out of today. We know we’re competitive, so now it’s up to us to make sure we don’t make mistakes." Two days later, in the moments leading up to the start of Race Three, they made a small one. But up against as formidable--and, sometimes, as lucky--a tactician as Butterworth, it was fatal.

The third race was decided by a 20-degree wind shift that filled in literally moments after the start, and it was Butterworth who had Alinghi perfectly positioned on the course’s right-hand flank to employ it. Ironically, Barker later explained that the TNZ weather team had recommended the right, but due to "confusion" on board, they set out for the left, in effect handing the race to Alinghi, who never trailed.

It was an admirable, if unsettling, admission, one that would soon lead to rumblings about the replacement of his old schoolmate and tactician, Hamish Pepper. Once ahead, the Swiss sailed flawlessly, applying a taut cover around the remainder of the track to win by four and a half boatlengths, or 23 seconds.

"Once again," wrote British yachting journalist Tim Jeffrey, "the speed margin between Alinghi’s SUI-64 and Team New Zealand’s NZL-82 is infinitesimal, but the gulf between the teams is gigantic." In four short days, the Kiwis had managed to lose in a variety of ways and found themselves in a deep hole. But, as the days ahead would prove, there’d be no quick denouement to the 31st Cup.

The Hiatus
On the sixth day of the exhausting 10-day layover between the third and fourth races of the match, Alinghi chief (and onboard navigator) Ernesto Bertarelli lost it. "This," he declared, "is a zoo."

Bertarelli’s beef was with the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s principal race officer, Harold Bennett, who wound up canceling seven races during the span due to a pair of gales and an endless string of zephyrs on the Hauraki Gulf. "The average breeze on the How-Wacky is a perfect 15 knots," noted Washington Post columnist Angus Phillips. "Half the time it blows 30; the other half, it’s zero."

On several of the light, shifty days, with the breeze ranging anywhere from four to eight knots, the Alinghi afterguard reckoned conditions were fine for racing. So, too, did many vocal members of the media. But Bennett wouldn’t budge, and, not surprisingly, he had Schnackenberg’s full support. "If it becomes a coin toss," said Schnack after one light-air cancellation, "it’s not the America’s Cup."

Only later did it become abundantly clear that TNZ’s only chance of winning a race might’ve been on a lucky shift on a fluky day.

But the Kiwis weren’t going down without a fight, which was evident when they announced a key crew change: French match-racing ace and practice-boat helmsman Bertrand Pacé would come aboard NZL-82 as tactician in place of rookie Cup sailor Hamish Pepper, who didn’t survive the Race Three loss.

Certainly, the TNZ backers hadn’t played the loyalty card when it came to Pacé or a regular crewman and strategist, Australian Adam Beashel, the youngest member of a famous Aussie sailing clan. But if an appreciation of irony was in short supply, simple common sense had plain run out.

That was obvious when a Squadron member petitioned to have fellow "life members" Coutts and Butterworth, two of New Zealand’s most accomplished sailors ever, expelled from its hallowed halls. Then came an extraordinary Herald article about Coutts entitled "Sailor of Fortune," which was not so much a profile as a character assassination. "In many ways, Russell Coutts and Switzerland have a lot in common," wrote reporter Jan Corbett. "They’re both lovely to look at, in a conventional, angular, thin-lipped sort of way. . . . They both have fashioned themselves as repositories for large amounts of money, often appearing in the same sentence as ’bank account.’" That was the opener. Then it got ugly.

For Corbett and others, the amusing game of "bashing Russell" helped fill the vacuum during the excruciating hiatus. Coutts’ life story was certainly compelling: Having excelled as a junior sailor in his youth, he went on to win gold in the Finn class at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, became a world-champion match racer, and eventually earned the honor of driving Team New Zealand in back-to-back Cup-winning campaigns.

It was following his second Cup triumph, in 2000, that things became complicated. After dispatching with ease Italy’s Prada Challenge, Coutts proclaimed that he planned to be at the forefront of a Kiwi dynasty that would retain the Cup for the next two decades. Then, some three months later--having cast his lot with Bertarelli and Alinghi for a reputed $5 million--he quit TNZ and took Butterworth and four other veteran Kiwi Cup sailors with him. The Herald’s front-page headline screamed, "We feel betrayed." And so it began.

Three years later, on the eve of this Cup, Coutts revealed details of the complex trust under which the TNZ syndicate operated and the difficult financial terms under which he, Butterworth, and Schnackenberg would’ve labored had they taken over the administrative reigns from the group led by the late Sir Peter Blake. Blake’s status as a legend whose reputation was beyond reproach--especially after being slain in the Amazon in December 2001--didn’t simplify an already sensitive situation.

In the end, however, given the opportunity (and the cash) presented to him by Bertarelli, the widespread practice of crewmen and designers crossing nationality barriers, and the baggage he would’ve inherited had he stayed, few sailors begrudged Coutts’ decision. It was quite another matter to many citizens in his homeland, where, in many ways, his vast skills and unparalleled talent were never appreciated until he was gone.

It’s a very old story. But the Coutts affair wasn’t the only toxic topic to emerge during the long, endless break. On February 25, four days before racing recommenced, a letter containing cyanide and threatening acts of terrorism at the Cup races was delivered to the British Embassy. It turned out to be an empty threat as well as a frightening reminder of the times in which we live.

For the Kiwis, more bad news was just around the corner.

The Pasting
When TNZ and Alinghi reconvened for the long-awaited fourth race on February 28, it was a far different Hauraki Gulf than the one they'd encountered 13 days before. Perhaps it was the low, bleak sky and lumpy seaway, or the discouraging showing by the hometown lads in the first three races, but on this summer weekend afternoon, the scores and scores of spectator craft that had stirred the waters on the opening day were absent.

Aussie journalist Bruce Montgomery, surveying the scene from the media vessel, counted fewer than a hundred boats in the starting area. For those resolute souls bobbing along under the Loyal flags, what they’d soon witness would severely test their loyalty.

It wasn’t a beautiful day, but it was dramatic. After three days of strong easterly winds, significant swells up to six feet high coursed down the gulf, and gusts registering in the upper 20-knot range continued to fuel the chop.

Later, in yet another telling remark, Dean Barker would say, "We certainly didn’t expect to be racing in 28 or 29 knots during the Cup."

With a late hoist of their headsail just before the pre-start maneuverings, things began poorly for the Kiwis. Alinghi jumped on their gaffe, easily won the course’s favored starboard side, and quickly strengthened their early lead. After two legs, Coutts and his mates held a slim but comfortable 17-second advantage.

As the Kiwis rounded the bottom mark and came hard on the wind for the second upwind beat, the scene aboard NZL-82 was deteriorating. Compared with SUI-64, the New Zealand boat appeared to be laboring, its fine, narrow bow often submarining through the waves while the Swiss boat, with its fuller forward section, lifted and knifed through the seas. When a mid-20s puff blew through, it was clear the Kiwi mainsail trimmer couldn’t control the backwinding mainsail, while Alinghi’s main was flat and efficient.

Worse still for the New Zealanders, the cockpit was once again awash, the bucket brigade in full bailing mode. Despite Schnackenberg’s denials, more than a few shoreside observers were convinced that the Kiwis were purposely channeling water on board in an effort to sink the hula and maximize its capability.

But even the conspiracy theorists had to admit this second serious dousing seemed extreme.

And then, perhaps at the worst possible moment, came a series of waves unlike any others. "We’ve got a flood of water," warned TNZ crewman Adam Beashel (in a remark picked up by the onboard TV mike). "Bad wave. Bad wave."

He wasn’t kidding.

It happened quickly. When NZL-82 plowed down and into the third roller in the set, the loads on the hull and rig were enormous. Something had to give, and it did. With a sick, audible crack, TNZ’s carbon-fiber spar buckled and toppled some 20 feet above the deck. For all intents and purposes, so too did any hope of defending the Cup. "This f-- boat!" screamed one frustrated Kiwi sailor, in an understandable, if inelegant, summation.

The dismasting postmortem revealed that the stick had broken due to the failure of a custom tip cup at the outboard end of the second spreader, a fitting designed to tie together the discontinuous rod rigging employed on Cup boats. For the second time in four races, Alinghi circled the course alone to register victory. As they approached the finish line under spinnaker, the sun now shining on its billowing sails, in the background a TNZ crewman took to the shattered rig with a circular saw. It was another signature snapshot, for if the day had been an indictment of the Kiwi program, it was also a testament to the strength and preparedness of the Alinghi yacht. Now, all that was left was the inevitable.

In keeping with the timing of the series, and also perhaps its spirit, racing was canceled the next day with nary a whisper of air ruffling the still gulf waters. It was Coutts’ 41st birthday, but he’d have to wait another day for his present.

On March 3, the stay of execution was over. On every count, Coutts, Butterworth, and the Alinghi crew--including two Americans, grinder John Barnitt and pitman Josh Belsky--sailed flawlessly. Alinghi hit the starting line perfectly, and, as usual, Butterworth nailed the first wind shift. Soon after, he passed to Coutts the precise information he wanted to hear.

"We're a little higher, a little quicker," Butterworth said.
Perhaps that was the biggest surprise of the match, but now there was no question about it: Alinghi not only had the better sailors, but in all conditions, from moderate to heavy, they also had the far better weapon. Butterworth would later discuss the merits of SUI-64, particularly its ability to shift into an extra gear when necessary. "When Russell wants to put the accelerator down, he can do that," he said. "I'm not sure the other guys can. It's a great all-around boat."

On the second-to-last run, as if to punctuate the reliability gap in their two boats, the Kiwis suffered one last breakdown--a spinnaker pole shattered after striking the headstay. It was the final indignity. Alinghi won Race Five by 45 seconds to finish their 5-0 sweep. Barker said, "They completed dominated us. They put together a faultless performance."

He was right. There was little else to say.

The Aftermath
At the end, the editors of The New Zealand Herald rediscovered a welcome smidgen of their missing sense of humor. The Cup, they lamented, was off to "New Swit-zealand." Indeed it was. And almost immediately, the Alinghi brain trust announced the protocol under which the 32nd America's Cup would be contested. First, it declared the formation of an allegiance with vanquished American challenger Larry Ellison's Oracle BMW syndicate and San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, which together would serve as the Challenger of Record for the 32nd Cup, projected to take place at an as-yet-undecided European venue in 2007. Next, Alinghi unveiled a new protocol for the event designed to haul the Auld Mug, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. The complete text of the revised format is available on the Alinghi website (www.alinghi.com).

While the traditional defender/challenger format remains essentially the same, among the highlights is a change in the rules regarding the nationality and residency requirements of participating sailors and designers, which signals the advent of a true free-agent system for the event. The rigid rule governing the transfer of designs and intellectual property has also been altered.

Going forward, both the challenger series and the Cup races themselves will be run under the auspices of a single governing body. Alinghi also plans to shorten the Cup to two and a half months--this latest edition ran a full five--by instituting several pre-regatta tournaments in the years leading up to the event that will establish seeds for a challenger elimination series. Fleet races will be an important aspect of that series.

And then there’s the matter of venue. The landlocked Swiss are ineligible to stage the Cup in their homeland and are actively seeking a new location. As competitive sailors, as well as fledgling promoters who understand the importance of television exposure, Bertarelli and Coutts seem intent on finding a windy place where, unlike summertime Auckland, consistent, reliable breezes exist and racing can commence on schedule. A decision on location will be forthcoming before December. Among the ports or locales under consideration: Marseille, Palma de Mallorca, Malta, southern Italy, and Lisbon.

Will the Kiwis be there? Almost immediately, Schnackenberg said yes. And a $3 million government grant earmarked to help keep the TNZ team together--and forestall a stampede like that in 2000 of New Zealand sailors to foreign syndicates--was announced just days after the Cup. Of course, where the next $70 million or so comes from remains to be seen.

In defeat, the Kiwis’ collective upper lip remained remarkably stiff. Schnack did concede that when it came to the innovative approach to NZL-82, perhaps they’d gone too far. "We were very gung ho in the design of the yacht, the rig, its appendages. We felt, and rightly so, that we were up against a formidable challenge," he said. "[But] we could afford to be more conservative in the design. We don’t need to be the lightest here or there. The lesson is to be more conservative."

Amen.

But their boat, of course, was simply one part of the Kiwis’ problem. Only in hindsight does the wide discrepancy in talent between the Cup finalists become clear. Perhaps the best and worst thing that ever happened to young Dean Barker was winning the final race in the 2000 Cup after Coutts handed him the wheel. On the one hand, it opened the door for him to take the helm of TNZ. On the other, it may have given him the false hope that he was ready to compete with his mentor on equal footing.

He was not. And, in fact, the exposed myth that the Kiwis had an endless well of Cup-caliber sailing talent from which to draw was one of the revelations of the 2003 Cup.

Still, one hopes that when the pain of losing the America’s Cup fades, New Zealanders will fondly remember and be justifiably proud of all the TNZ accomplishments. From their first Cup forays off Fremantle in their "plastic fantastic" 12-Meter to the renegade 1988 "Big-Boat" challenge in San Diego to their devastating displays of sailing prowess in successfully challenging for and defending the trophy, they’d enjoyed one helluva ride. And the stunning transformation of the Viaduct Harbour in downtown Auckland will be a lasting legacy of those eventful years.

That said, had Coutts, Butterworth, and friends not slipped away, the good times might still be rolling. When Coutts drove Alinghi across the finish line on March 2 to win his third consecutive Cup, he’d proven that he’s not only the world’s top racing sailor but also the best ever to play the esoteric game of America’s Cup. His 14 individual race victories as a skipper surpass by one the former record of 13 held by none other than Mr. America’s Cup, Dennis Conner. And, of course, the future is wide open.

As with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the collaboration between Coutts, the deft driver, and Butterworth, the enlightened strategist, is one for the ages. Like the songwriters, their greatest moments have come as a pair, when each tapped into the other’s unique talents to maximize the potential of both individuals and create something unsurpassed.

For those Kiwis with a sense of history, it might all bring to mind one particular wistful Beatles tune. For with Coutts, Butterworth, and, now, the America’s Cup gone from their shores, it’d be hard not to believe in, and long for, yesterday.

Herb McCormick is the editor of CW.