Boatloads of drama: Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup secrets revealed
29th January 2021

The Godfather of New Zealand’s initial forays into the America’s Cup has lifted the lid on some of the greatest secrets and scandals of the country’s early challenges for the ‘Auld Mug’.

As Team New Zealand prepare to launch their defence of one of the world’s oldest sporting trophies, Sir Michael Fay has opened up in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview about our colourful and at-times controversial Cup history, including:

* Fears the KZ1 ‘Big Boat’ challenge would break up and sink off San Diego against Star and Stripes in 1988,

* How that yacht was impounded by Cuban authorities as it was being transported through the country’s waters over security fears it was a “missile launcher”,

* What happened during a late-night bar run-in with infamous American yachtie Dennis Conner,

* The future Knight ended up running the syndicate only after another Kiwi high-flyer who signed a contract to be team boss never turned up for work,

* How the consortium he led had spent hundreds of millions on its three successive campaigns,

* That Sir Peter Blake – who headed the successful 1995 challenge and 2000 defence – initially didn’t want to work in the America’s Cup as the environment was full of “w*****s”, and

* The syndicate were their own worst enemies before losing the cup in 2003, by not signing on stars who later guided Alinghi to victory.

Fay oversaw a succession of on and off water dramas while heading the three campaigns, but none was potentially as life-threatening as fears he revealed were held for the seaworthiness of the 120-foot long KZ 1 in its doomed ‘Big Boat’ challenge against Stars and Stripes’ Catamaran in 1988.

“We thought the keel would fall off anytime … seriously,” Fay told the Weekend Herald.

“We thought, ‘Oh well, maybe it will only have to last two races, so it should hang in’. Sometimes you have to take your chances.

“But it would have been a thing that you would have wanted to get off in a hurry if it started to go over. It would have been something to see if that thing had of tipped over.”

As well as heading the syndicate – who challenged Conner’s Stars & Stripes for the Cup – he was also a member of its 40-strong crew.

Conner was dubbed ‘Dirty Den’ due to his bitter feud with Fay and successive New Zealand challenge’s going back to the first during the summer of 1986-87.

He also infuriated the Kiwi syndicate and sports fans alike by deciding to defend the Cup in against Fay’s ‘Big Boat’ by racing a much smaller and faster catamaran.

Fay said the boat choice meant the on-water result in the series – which his team lost 2-0 – was a formality before the first race. But the challenger’s still kept the damage to KZ 1 a tightly-kept secret during the series as “[Conner] would have had us to tacking left waiting for us to go over.”

KZ 1 is now on display at the entrance to Auckland’s Viaduct Basin in the CBD.

Fay – who put in the controversial challenge on behalf of the Mercury Bay Boating Club – was later awarded the America’s Cup by the New York State’s Supreme Court. That decision was later overturned on appeal.

The rich lister took charge of the 1986-87, 1988 and 1992 New Zealand challenges.

Blake – who Fay had onboard in a managerial role in 1992 – then headed Team New Zealand when it won the ‘Auld Mug’ in 1995.

But Fay revealed Blake had taken some persuading to be involved in the America’s Cup; an event which is known equally for legal scraps, egos and dirty tricks, as it is for what happens on the water.

“He didn’t like the America’s Cup at all. He hated it. He thought they were a bunch of w*****s … true,” Fay said.

“He was a guy with strong principles and a big presence. But he didn’t like [the America’s Cup]. He did it because he had a deep down ‘I know how to do this, I know the type of leader I can become and what I can do here’. And he did it.”

Fay – talking as Team New Zealand prepare to defend the trophy – said Blake was the “dimension” the syndicate needed, and in 1995 he headed the successful challenge in San Diego which saw New Zealand become the smallest country to win the America’s Cup.

“Peter came into the ’92 campaign. I thought, ‘Well I have had three goes at this’, I would have loved to have stayed on of course but I thought Peter is the guy who really needs to take this over.

“I would have loved to have been the guy who did it, but I think I had done my bit.”


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