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America's Cup: Sliding Doors

by John Curnow 23 Mar 19:00 NZDT
The America's Cup and the Prada Cup in front of the New York Yacht Club's Newport Club House © Carlo Borlenghi

If the 2021 America's Cup proves one thing, it's that design and innovation reigns supreme. It would be easy to focus on large catamarans, even bigger monohulls, perhaps even seeing the Kiwis start foiling the AC72 cats, or their cyclors of Bermuda. Yet in actual fact it goes all the way back to 1987, when New Zealand showed up with the first of the plastic fantastics - the fibreglass 12s.

Iain Murray is an Olympian, three time race director for the America's Cup, and 12-time World Champion sailor, including as recently as 2019 in the Etchells. Notably for us, Murray was there in Fremantle, for he was the Skipper and designer of the three Kookaburras, the final of which would be Australia's defender against Denis Conner's, Stars & Stripes.

Australia went down four nil, and the Auld Mug left Australia's shores, to this day never to return again. We have not seen since the bravado and brashness of an Australia II jacket on the Prime Minister, the hoopla of a boat coming out of the water to have her skirts dropped to reveal a secret weapon. There are no craft adorning street corners or marking out maritime precincts. School children do not learn about sailing and our mighty exploits at the zenith of the sport, unlike our neighbours across The Ditch (Tasman Sea).

No, those opportunities for advancement and galvanising of a nation have been lost to us. The one thing it did not do, however, was stop us producing champion sailors, both inshore and off, and perhaps the last 30 years have been our most rewarding in so many facets, including Olympic glory. Yet when One Australia sank on March 5, 1995, you could easily argue that it took any remaining hope of Australian representation at the highest level with it.

In addition to being the Race Director for the America's Cup, Murray also holds a similar position for SailGP, as well as being Australian Sailing's Director of the Olympic Team as they prepare for Tokyo. Noting the distinct differences between the two nations now, after the Kiwis decades long direct involvement with both winning and losing the America's Cup, Murray commented, "What really hurt was coming back to the dock and seeing hundreds of thousands of people who had believed in you, and feeling like you had simply fallen short; not done your job. It was kind of a funny thing. Australia II had beaten everyone. They were now the defender, and we'd beaten them, but we got thrashed."

For all this time it is more than possible that Murray has shouldered an unfair burden, for the Defender of Record had effectively forced them to use Kookaburra III, when what they really wanted to do was use the intervening time to lengthen Kookaburra II, and use her for the best of seven series against Conner.

"We got a little surprise one night. A meeting had been called at the Commodore's house, at which time they revealed a contract they had with the Bond syndicate stating that one of their craft was to be in the defender final, no matter what. We had to go back out and beat Australia IV again." For the record, they demolished them five nil.

"Looking back, it may have been naïve, but we elected to keep our trial horse to train against each day, rather than cut her up. We focussed on beating Bond, rather than the end game of tackling Conner", said Murray.

In Australian Sailing's Participation Census from a couple of years ago, it was deemed that some 250,000 people were involved with sailing in some form, and just under half of those were paid up members. This did not encompass all of the volunteers who make all of the racing possible, so it is indeed a hefty final figure.

The entire leisure marine industry is worth at least $8.6 billion to Australia, and directly employs some 28,000 people in 2,500 businesses. Yes, this is worth a lot to Australia collectively, and it is not just the GDP ramifications, either.

Back in the prehistoric era, I got first-hand exposure to the saying, 'There's no problem in yachting that throwing heaps of money at has not made go away'. That's definitely true, but perhaps the drive, the will, the enthusiasm and the determination of the nation is a currency that cannot be valued in monetary terms. The Kiwis have absolutely proven that a very lean machine can get the job done, and certainly take their nation forward. Perhaps we can inspect, admire and replicate that... (closely)

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