Sep 21, 2017 Boating history

With her GRP construction, KZ7ruffled a few feathers among the racing elite. But she nearly prevailed in pulling off the impossible, as John Mcfarlane reveals.

Prior to shipping KZ3 and KZ5 to Perth, syndicate head Michael Fay had been busy arranging the critical area of sponsorship. The Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) became naming sponsor, with supplementary sponsorship from Epiglass, Jebson Line, Motor Holdings Subaru and the Lion Corporation.

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Crew selection was another vital component, and with the BNZ Challenge now committed to two boats, 22 racing crew plus backups were required. A committee of Roy Dickson, Ralph Roberts and Bret de Thier was set up to identify suitable crew.
While there were numerous New Zealand sailors with offshore, IOR and dinghy racing experience, none had any experience racing 12m yachts.

The committee selected 23-year old Chris Dickson and 40-year old Graeme Woodroffe as the two potential skippers. While the younger Dickson was then the leading New Zealand match-race skipper, the more experienced Woodroffe had been one of the premier IOR skippers over the past decade.

The remainder of the crew brought a mixture of keelboat and dinghy racing experience and included Joe Allen, Russell Coutts, Simon Daubney, Warwick Fleury, Rob Salthouse and Erle Williams.

Peter Bateman, Peter Debreceny and Peter Mander had already set up the shore facilities and accommodation when KZ3 and KZ5 arrived in Perth, January 13, 1986. The two yachts had their first competitive outing at an invitation race on January 26, where, despite equipment issues, KZ5 and KZ3 finished fourth and fifth respectively out of 13. On the second invitation race on February 5, KZ5 and KZ3 finished third and fourth, a promising start for a first-time campaign.

A fleet of 12 boats from nine syndicates of both defenders and challengers lined up for the start of the world series on February 7. Dickson at the helm of KZ5 had a flying start, while Woodroff in KZ3 was caught in the pack. KZ5 led the fleet to the top mark and went on to a comfortable win, an amazing effort.

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Despite this initial success, the seven-race series became a hard battle for the Kiwis. Besides the inevitable mistakes associated with learning to race 12m yachts in boisterous conditions, both KZ3 and KZ5 suffered equipment and mast issues.
Nonetheless, KZ5 finished the series in second place behind the vastly experienced Australia III team, a massive vindication of the skill of the New Zealand designers.

But the series revealed shortcomings in boat and shore crew and a number were dropped. Fortunately, the Lion New Zealand and NZI Enterprise Whitbread campaigns had just finished and several of their crew, including Grant Dalton, Ed Danby, Mike Quilter, Bob Graham, Tony Rae, Kevin Shoebridge, Grant Spanhake and Andrew Taylor, joined the BNZ Challenge.

Dickson, whose intensity and competitiveness had polarised some crew, had made errors and Fay sent him back to Auckland for a series of sessions with a sports psychologist.

Additional skills were recruited from outside, including Frenchman Laurent Esquier as sailing director and Englishman Peter Wilson as shore boss. Roy Dickson, who’d sailed part of the regatta as KZ5’s tactician, was paired up with Esquier to manage the sailing team.

Meantime the three New Zealand designers finalised plans for the third boat, KZ7. The hull lines were tweaked, the GRP construction was refined and the winged keel was a significant step-up in performance over those on KZ3 and KZ5. Dame Naomi James launched KZ7, or Kiwi Magic as she became known, on July 26, 1986 and the yacht was immediately shipped to Perth.

By now the BNZ Challenge had noticeably ramped up in intensity. Two mini match-race series held over July and August helped identify KZ7’s final crew, which became Dickson, Butterworth, Quilter, Rae, Daubney, Shoebridge, Brian Phillimore, Taylor, Danby, Jeremy Scantlebury and Williams.

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Woodroff, initially named reserve skipper, was later dropped in favour of David Barnes, while Dalton was named reserve grinder/pit/mast.

With the crew settled, KZ7 was worked up against KZ5 and by the time the Louis Vuitton Cup began on October 5, the yacht was looking highly competitive.

In race one KZ7 beat the Buddy Melges-helmed Heart of America by over six minutes, setting the tone for the following two weeks. KZ7 didn’t meet up with Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes until October 17, well after Conner’s syndicate, Sail America Foundation (SAF), had officially queried the legality of KZ7’s GRP construction.

SAF attempted to persuade the other challengers to require all 12m yachts be remeasured to ensure compliance, with all composite 12m yachts, i.e. solely KZ7, being core-sampled. But SAF failed to gain a majority and the motion was defeated.
In the middle of the legal shenanigans, KZ7 raced Stars & Stripes for the first time and, after a close battle, suffered her first defeat. Tellingly, while KZ7 seemed a fraction quicker, Conner’s considerable experience at racing 12m yachts proved enough to win.

But this was KZ7’s only defeat and she finished the round in equal first place with America II and Stars & Stripes. The Courageous syndicate retired so it was down to 12 challengers for the second round-robin.

KZ7 dominated this round winning each of her 11 races, with America II, Stars & Stripes and French Kiss making up the other top four syndicates.

Round-robin three was equally KZ7’s round and she finished the three round-robins with 198 points out of a possible 199. KZ7’s dominance on the water was obviously generating resentment off it when at a press conference Conner made his infamous remark: “Why would you do it [build a GRP boat] unless you wanted to cheat?”

But Fay was well-prepared and, backed by Lloyds, the issue of KZ7’s compliance was again defeated.

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The semi-finals began December 28, with KZ7 racing against the fourth-placed French Kiss, and Stars & Stripes against USA. Previous wins meant nothing; it would be winner take all from here on.

It was all over by January 2, 1987; KZ7 had romped over French Kiss four-nil, while Stars & Stripes had done the same to USA. The Louis Vuitton final would be decided between the brash newcomer, KZ7, and the vastly-experienced Stars & Stripes.

The Stars & Stripes syndicate spent the next 11 days making small but telling improvements to optimise its yacht for stronger breezes. But with 37 wins from 38 starts, the BNZ Challenge team was reluctant to make anything other than minor improvements to KZ7.

Race one of the seven-race series started January 13 with 20-plus knots of breeze. It was a close race but it seemed Stars & Stripes had a speed advantage in those conditions and beat KZ7 by 1m 20s. The next day the same thing happened with Stars & Stripes winning by 1m 36 sec. Shocked at two consecutive defeats, the BNZ Challenge called a lay day to regroup.
Race three and Stars & Stripes was leading when she blew a spinnaker halyard allowing KZ7 to get in front. Despite Stars & Stripes instituting a furious tacking duel, KZ7 remained in front to win by 38 seconds.

Race four and the breeze was up near the maximum allowable 26 knots. Stars & Stripes got to the top mark first with KZ7 close behind, but on the run KZ7 crash-gybed tearing out her backstay and with it the masthead crane. With KZ7’s mast and mainsail deteriorating throughout the remainder of the race, Stars & Stripes easily won by 3m 38s. With the score now three-one Stars & Stripes was on match point.

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With the BNZ Challenge beginning to unravel, Fay called another lay day. While the shore crew fitted a spare mast and repaired the other damage, Fay rebuffed pressure from certain quarters to replace Dickson with Barnes and tried to settle the now rattled afterguard.

January 19 and the breeze was again in excess of 20 knots. With her replacement mast KZ7 wasn’t looking comfortable and Stars & Stripes led to the first mark. KZ7 made up most of the deficit on the run, then on the reaching legs used a gennaker to close right up but without being able to pass.

Stars & Stripes held KZ7 out on the next upwind leg, but on the last run KZ7 surfed right up to Stars & Stripes transom to an excellent position to attack on the last beat. But KZ7 touched the last mark and had to re-round, allowing Stars & Stripes to sail away to win by 1m 29s.

The dream was over, the BNZ Challenge team in Perth and their hundreds of thousands of supporters back in New Zealand were left shattered.

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Just how close the BNZ Challenge had come to winning the America’s Cup was revealed on February 4, when Stars & Stripes won her fourth straight race against Kookaburra III to take the Cup off to its new home, San Diego. As it turned out, the Australian defender had been off the pace, so whoever won the Louis Vuitton Cup would likely have won the America’s Cup.

The BNZ Challenge team arrived back in Auckland on February 16 to a rapturous welcome. An estimated crowd of 250,000 welcomed the team with a ticker-tape parade down Queen Street. Welcomes were also laid on in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

Besides galvanising the whole country, the BNZ Challenge had achieved so much. Until 1987 it had been generally accepted America’s Cup challengers needed multiple attempts to gain enough experience to win the Cup. The Australians won it on their fourth attempt, while the British – 166 years and counting – are still trying.

Unquestionably KZ7 was the best all-round 12m yacht in Perth that summer and, despite the lack of time, money and experience, the BNZ Challenge came agonisingly close to winning the America’s Cup at its first attempt.

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What went wrong?
The short answer is, not much. To a degree, the BNZ Challenge team became victims of their own success. With KZ7’s dominance through the round-robins and into the finals – 37 wins from 38 starts – running into the vastly-experienced Conner, at the top of his game and Stars & Stripes optimised precisely to the race conditions, gave the BNZ Challenge team a bloody nose they weren’t equipped to handle attitudinally.

When the pressure came on and KZ7 was facing elimination, cracks appeared in the crew’s performance – not many, but enough. Lacking America’s Cup experience, management couldn’t bridge the gap.

But a more telling reason for the loss went back many months to management’s decision not to retain the design team in Perth during the round robins. The three principal designers, Davidson, Farr and Holland, have confirmed to this writer, had they had been retained in Perth during that time, they could have hugely improved KZ7’s performance.

While Fay did fly Farr out to Perth just prior to the finals, his advice to mode KZ7 differently to improve her heavy weather performance wasn’t taken as the crew didn’t want to change a winning formula. This included KZ7’s sails, which proved too full and powerful for the conditions.

20170905091341_cmyk2 (Small)The final reason came down to the rub of the green. In less than 15 knots of breeze KZ7 had it all over Stars & Stripes, between 15 and 20 knots there was little in it, while over 20 knots Stars & Stripes had the edge. The Louis Vuitton finals were all sailed in winds between 18 and 28 knots, with an average of 23 knots. Ironically, the breeze died the night KZ7 was defeated and didn’t return.

According to the BNZ Challenge weatherman Bob McDavitt, during the previous 13 years, on only one occasion had the 3.00pm wind speed exceeded 20 knots on three successive January afternoons. Statistically, it should have happened only once every 36 years.

It had been a close-run thing, but no cigar.

Fay would head up two more New Zealand America’s Cup campaigns, the KZ1 big boat challenge of 1988 and the first of the new format IACC boats of 1992 with NZL20. Both campaigns featured the innovative design, flashes of brilliance and controversy that have characterised New Zealand’s America’s Cup campaigns, but they are stories for other days.