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Hope turns to despair as Kiwi Cup hopes fade

September 25, 2013

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealanders will face the last, ghastly visitation of a week-long nightmare when Oracle Team USA and Team New Zealand meet in the 19th and deciding race for the America’s Cup.

The home team is hotly favored to complete the greatest comeback in the 162-year history of sailing’s oldest trophy on Wednesday in San Francisco, about breakfast time Thursday in New Zealand.

Over the past seven days New Zealanders have gathered in early-morning groups around televisions at yacht clubs, in bars, offices and schools — a peak audience of almost one million in a country of 4.5 million — to watch Team New Zealand, leading 8-1, pursue the one win it needed to clinch the best-of-nine race series.

But as the week progressed and as Team USA has peeled off seven straight wins, jubilation faded to mere hope and then dwindled to despair as Team New Zealand stumbled towards defeat in the longest regatta in America’s Cup history.

Little optimism remains in New Zealand that Team USA’s comeback will falter in the deciding race. While crowds steadily built and shared a sense of national exhilaration as Team New Zealand established its early big lead in the first week of the finals series, confidence has ebbed and even the national betting agency has Team USA as its favorite for overall victory.

Team USA was once 12-1 outsiders to win the Cup but so many New Zealanders are now betting on an American victory they are now almost odds-on and the agency will take a six-figure loss if Team New Zealand is beaten.

The sense of national shock and disappointment was epitomized on Wednesday by photographs which ran on the front pages of New Zealand’s major newspapers showing a disconsolate Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker with his head in his hands.

Newspapers also showed New Zealand fans in tears as a national dream of winning the America’s Cup for the third time, and which had been so tantalizingly close to achievement for a week became more and more improbable.

At the Royal Port Nicolson yacht Club on Wellington’s waterfront, Terry Steven said he had been skipping work to watch each morning, thanks to an understanding business partner. He said it felt like he’s stuck in the headlights with a truck bearing down on him.

“It’s been tough watching it,” he said. “But you’ve got to give credit to Oracle for an amazing comeback. If they win it, they deserve it.”

Another avid viewer at the club each day has been Kate Robinson, a competitive sailor who has raced in the storied Sydney to Hobart yacht race. She said a week ago she was supporting Oracle’s Australian skipper Jimmy Spithill. Not now.

“I wanted him to do better,” she said. “But not this well.”

And if Team New Zealand loses?

“I’ll probably cry,” she said. And she wasn’t joking.

But some sailing fans on social media were able to display the dry Kiwi sense of humor which often asserts itself in times of crisis.

Ben Hallahan told his Twitter followers that New Zealand toy sellers had been forced to withdraw models of the New Zealand yacht from sale because they were “a choking hazard.”

In high spirits at the start of the week in which New Zealand’s third America’s Cup victory seemed inevitable, New Zealanders argued over where, when and how they would defend the trophy and what economic benefits a regatta in New Zealand might bring. Now some such hubris invited a reversal of fortune.

After a week of losses Kiwis are now contemplating the end of Team New Zealand and of a New Zealand involvement in the America’s Cup which began in 1987.

New Zealand first challenged for the America’s Cup off Fremantle, Western Australia in 1987, building the world’s first-ever glass-fiber 12-meter yacht to reach the challenger final before losing to American Dennis Conner.

The Kiwis first won the trophy off San Diego in 1995 and became the first nation outside the United States to defend it when they retained it off Auckland in 2000 before losing it to Alinghi of Switzerland in 2003.

In order to keep Team New Zealand alive after that loss, the New Zealand government injected taxpayer dollars into the team to supplement the contributions of international sponsors — up to $40 million for the latest challenge. The merit of that investment at a time of relative austerity has been questioned in many quarters and it seems unlikely, if New Zealand loses, there will be public support for a further injection of government funding.

New Zealanders will recommence their week-long vigil on Thursday morning — races are shown around 8 a.m. local time — in the hope their team can turn a tide that has run so solidly in Team USA’s favor over the past week. But crowds have ebbed away along with hope.

Lea Worth was one of the few believers when she urged her Twitter followers to “keep the faith. Team NZ needs an entire country behind them supporting and cheering, not negativity and talking of failure.”


Nick Perry in Wellington contributed to this story.

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