The Down-Under Cup

Prada Pirelli TeamItaly’s excellent driver, Jimmy Spithill (right), is Australian. ‘Nuff said. Photo courtesy Luna Rossa 

March/April 2021

By Peter Winter

Warning: Violent and gratuitous allegory ahead

New Zealand sent several artillery batteries to help out during the Vietnam War. Some culturally insensitive brute at the Pentagon decided that since New Zealand looked pretty close to Australia on a map, they must be friendly neighbors. So it came to be that the New Zealand howitzers were positioned to provide protection to patrolling Aussies. To this day the New Zealand commander swears that the weather was so foul on the first night they went into action that radio transmissions were garbled and occasionally impossible to decipher through the static. When the Aussies called for a salvo, the Kiwis apparently misheard the coordinates and dropped a dozen eggs perilously close to the Australian position. The unhappy Aussies forgot all about their supposed enemy. They turned and charged up the hill toward the real ones.

At the time I am home from college. We hear that the Prime Minister is to address the nation at 8 p.m. At five to eight the family assembles in the sitting room. The PM comes on and announces that “a number of New Zealand soldiers have been hurt, three quite seriously, in hand-to-hand fighting with a detachment of Australians in the Mekong Delta.”

The sainted mother is unstartled by this dreadful news. “Good Lord,” she says to nobody in particular. “We used to go to Sydney to do that kind of thing.”

I’m a writer, paid to make things up, but I’m sure this story is true. My mother turns 100 in May but still has every single one of her marbles, and when I called her just now to check – this is Points East after all, no fakery here – she said “of course, dear, and why are you bothering me?”

“Because I’m writing a little article about the America’s Cup, mother, and you know, that guy Spithill from Sydney is driving for the Italians.”

“Ghastly little Australian chap,” she said, and hung up.

Now before you get your dander up and look to check me for cultural prejudice, let me remind you that every state in this, my beloved adopted country, has a whipping boy. Here in Maine, it’s Massachusetts. In New York, it’s New Jersey. Texas has California. Georgia, Alabama. You can go all the way down the line to poor old Mississippi where, regrettably, you find yourself with nowhere else to go. But all of us have some kind of geographic prejudice. For us in New Zealand, it’s the land of Australia, where the women are few and the sheep are, well, nervous. Despite this sad fact of life, occasionally, a Kiwi leaves New Zealand to seek work in Australia. You know what happens then? The IQ of both countries goes up.

I have made this point because, being a Kiwi, the critical thing about this particular America’s Cup is not to let an Australian helmsman get his hands on it, even if he is driving a boat that represents Italy and sharing the helm with the marvelous Francesco Bruni. The ignominy would be just too much for the nation to take. We beat COVID-19. But lost the Cup to . . . him?

Yes, retaining the Auld Mug is important in itself. Yes, it’s important that Team New Zealand proves again that the little country at the end of the world can win against the big guys with all the money. Yes, national pride is at stake. Yes, it was satisfying to see the colonial overlords at Team Ineos UK get beat in the Prada Cup. Yes, these AC-75s have 11 crew, each with a vital role to play. All of that is important. But the most important thing is not losing to Jimmy Spithill. That is why the crowds down there will bay for blood. And that is why this is actually not the America’s Cup. It’s the Down-Under Cup.

I hasten to say that this behavior has nothing to do with what he did to us with Oracle Team USA in 2013 in San Francisco, or the last-minute mysterious and illegal hydraulic thing he used to do it with. Nothing at all. We expunged the pain of that four years ago in Bermuda. Or did we?

I would love to be there to watch, for I have missed just one America’s Cup since San Diego in 1988. Readers with good memories may recall that I occupy something of an exalted position in America’s Cup lore, after getting caught with my pants down on the stern of the New Zealand boat in Valencia in 2007 (Points East, “The 18th Man,” May 2013). But I know I shouldn’t travel in these trying times, and that I’d get in trouble with curtain-twitchers all around my hometown here in Maine if I tried, even if I put on a big face mask and a T-shirt saying “I am Pat Sajak.” So, I’ll have to stay up and watch it on television.

This edition of the regatta, like the last one in Bermuda, involves foiling boats, so it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. I wonder what old Bob would think about it. He used to run a little marina down the road and for years he banned fiberglass boats. It must have been bad for business. But he was adamant that he would not cater to any boat made from the same material as toilet seats. The latest America’s Cup boats are to boats what the Foo Fighters are to Bach. Or what a Formula 1 racecar is to Vanderbilt’s beautiful J-class yacht Ranger, built not far from here in Bath, Maine. In other words, they are not boats at all. They are flying nautical pods.

It’s easy to scoff, but in 25 years’ time, when they have labeled us fuddy-duddies and put us in a corner, our kids and their kids will be rocketing around home waters in craft like this, and loving every minute of it. And it’s interesting how, notwithstanding the technology and the speed and the risk, the basic tenets of sailboat racing still apply when these 75-feet long flying machines hurtle into the start gate at 40 knots or so. The principles of the cross, the tack, the gybe, the cover – they all still apply. The grinders are more important now than ever before. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe they are indeed “boats,” after all.

I know, I know, the curmudgeon in you forbids acceptance of these strange new beasts. You have your friends. The commodore of the New York Yacht Club told “Sailing World,” before his team bowed out, that if they won they would “put the boat back in the water.” Pass me the port. For all the focus on the foiling, there is another, equally important but seldom-mentioned dimension to these machines: Sail shape. Doesn’t get more traditional than that.

The core of the sail plan is a rotating soft-skin sail. Actually, it’s two-sails-in-one, a double-sided mainsail. Called “skins,” the two sails must be attached to each of the aft edges of a D-section spar. It’s not a revolutionary idea. L. Francis Herreshoff filed a patent describing a twin-skin setup in the 1920s. Few picked up on it. Absent today’s technology, the challenging physics of the idea proved too much to overcome. Something to do with finding a way to make the windward surface flatter than the leeward one, they say.

As the boats bolt up and down the course at close to 60 mph it looks like they are competing in the same class. But there was a lot of room left in the specifications to play with sail area structure, geometry and shape. Spithill’s Luna Rossa showed in the Prada Cup that it was fast, very fast. But the word on the street in Auckland is that Emirates Team New Zealand may be even faster. Look to the sails to see why.

So I’ll be watching every second of it, and praying that Team New Zealand can pull it off again. But just in case it doesn’t work out, I have written farewell notes to my kids. If a bloody Aussie takes the Cup away, I just don’t think I could take it.

Peter Winter writes from his home in Georgetown, Maine. You can find his growing collection of short stories at medium.com/peter-winters-life-of-fiction. His father was born in Freemantle, Australia, on the boat bringing his family to New Zealand.