NZ and the 1987 America’s Cup Part One

Aug 28, 2017 Boating history

On 22nd August 1851 William (Dick) Brown steered the schooner America across the line to win the Royal Yacht Squadron’s annual race around the Isle of Wight. First prize was a rather ugly silver ewer. John Macfarlane explores New Zealand's first attempt to win the Cup.

John Stevens, the syndicate head that owned America, took the ewer home to New York, gifting it upon his death in 1857 to the New York Yacht Club (NYYC). The deed accompanying his gift established the trophy as “a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries” and the ewer became known as the America’s Cup.

Over the next 132 years, foreign challenge after foreign challenge tried and failed to wrest the America’s Cup from the NYYC. Of 85 America’s Cup races held between 1951 and 1980, the NYYC won 78 of them.

There were several reasons for the defender’s dominance. Apart from a couple of exceptions, the Americans had more advanced yacht design, while their sailors employed better tactics and matchracing skills. Additionally, over the years the NYYC had no hesitation in tweaking the rules to its advantage.

Then on 26th September 1983 John Bertrand steered Australia II across the line to win the seventh and deciding race of the 26th America’s Cup. The longest unbroken sporting run in history was over and the America’s Cup was triumphantly carried off to its new home, the Royal Perth Yacht Club.

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Until this point only a handful of New Zealanders, most notably the late Tom Clark, had even toyed with the idea of a home-grown America’s Cup challenge. The general consensus was that taking on the NYYC in its home waters of Newport, Rhode Island was a step too far for this country.

But, despite the savage pruning of the 1979 Boat Tax, the previous decade had been a great one for New Zealand yachting. Kiwi boats and their crews had won numerous titles including three One Ton Cups, three Half Ton Cups, two Quarter Ton Cups and three Southern Cross Cups.

With the 1987 America’s Cup to be held in Perth, all challengers would be starting from a level playing field. And rather than the light, shifty winds of Newport, the 1987 event would be held in Fremantle’s windy, boisterous conditions.

With the glass ceiling now broken, the idea of a New Zealand challenge began to be seriously considered. Early in 1984 the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) let it be known it would be open to a local syndicate making a challenge under its banner. None was forthcoming and on March 31, the day entries closed, then-Commodore Rob Green announced there’d be no New Zealand challenge.

But unbeknown to the RNZYS, Marcel Fachler, a Belgian businessman living in Australia, had entered a New Zealand challenge on behalf of the RNZYS. As well as paying the $16,000 entry fee, Fachler also agreed to fund a feasibility study and budget to be done by RNZYS Rear Commodore Don Brooke.

On advice from PR consultant Cedric Allen, National Minister of Immigration Aussie Malcolm was recruited to assist while Brooke toured Europe and America to look at existing 12m yachts. Brooke eventually recommended that the 12m Enterprise, a 1977 Olin Stephens design, be purchased as a crew trainer and trial horse for a new, New Zealand-designed 12m yacht.

The design of this would be critical and the RNZYS asked Bruce Farr, Laurie Davidson and Ron Holland to submit design proposals. The idea of the three designers working together as a team was floated but Farr was initially reluctant.

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Conscious of time, in July 1984 the RNZYS steering committee of Fachler, Allen, Green and Brooke appointed Holland as designer and announced the purchase of Enterprise.

Brooke had estimated an America’s Cup campaign would cost in excess of $6 million. One of the first sponsors was Epiglass New Zealand. Holland approached then-Epiglass Managing Director Trevor Geldard and the eventual sponsorship package, which included the 1985 Admiral’s Cup campaign, totalled one-million dollars.

Meantime there’d been a major shake up on the political front. On June 14, 1984, a drunken Rob Muldoon called a snap election for the following month. His gamble failed and on July 14 National was turfed out in favour of the David Lange-led Labour Party.

Within months the new government, with Roger Douglas on the financial handlebars, began dismantling
the financial and trade restraints an iron-fisted Muldoon had spent years establishing. A wave of national optimism gathered momentum and many things heretofore considered impossible now seemed possible. A New Zealand America’s Cup campaign perfectly suited the mood of the times.

Meantime Malcolm, who’d lost his seat in the election, was appointed project manager of the fledging New Zealand campaign, while 23-year-old sailor Chris Dickson and a scratch crew campaigned Enterprise at the 12m Worlds in Sardinia.

While they only finished sixth out of eight, this wasn’t a bad result as none of the crew had raced a 12m yacht before. Additionally, Enterprise was in such poor condition that the RNZYS committee later cancelled the sale.

Instead of buying Enterprise, it was decided to build two new boats. This would require a bigger budget, so Holland and Alan Sefton approached several businessmen seeking funding. One was merchant banker Michael Fay, who with David Richwhite had founded Fay Richwhite.

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Though interested, Fay was sceptical and undertook an extensive due diligence process. While considering his involvement, to his credit he advanced sufficient funds upfront to enable Holland to begin tank-testing 12m models.

It took several months before Fay agreed to underwrite the challenge but conditional upon Farr, Davidson and Holland agreeing to work as a team.

This wasn’t easy to arrange but at a meeting in Florida in February 1985, Malcolm persuaded Farr to join Holland and Davidson. Tom Schnackenburg, a New Zealand sailmaker and a key member of the Australia II campaign, helped overcome Farr’s reluctance by suggesting a security blanket over the trio with all work being credited to the group.

Besides their impeccable yacht design qualifications, each of the trio brought something special to the table. Davidson had long been interested in 12m yachts and thoroughly understood the 12m rules; Holland was well up to speed on tank testing and had been able to obtain the plans for both Australia II and Victory 83. What Farr and his long-time partner Russell Bowler brought to the mix was the idea of building the 12m yachts in GRP.

While this wasn’t a new idea – several syndicates from previous campaigns had investigated it – until then no one had been able to obtain Lloyds approval for a GRP 12m yacht, which until then had been built in either timber or aluminium. Under 12m rules, while each design remained confidential to its designer, Lloyds had to approve all 12m yachts.

While GRP construction was allowed under the rules, Lloyds required that a GRP 12m could be no lighter than an aluminium one, nor have a more advantageous weight distribution. No one had been able to prove to Lloyds this could be done.

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But the New Zealand designers knew GRP offered performance advantages over aluminium. For example, a GRP 12m would be stiffer, both longitudinally and locally, a significant advantage in the strong winds and choppy seas off Fremantle. Additionally, building two hulls from GRP would be quicker than building in aluminium, while having two identical boats would facilitate the testing of sails, rigs, rudders, keels and wings.

But to gain Lloyds approval meant first designing an aluminium 12m, gaining an approval and then converting the aluminium construction to GRP and obtaining a second approval. The fine line the design trio had to navigate was making the aluminium 12m light enough so that when this was translated into GRP it would provide a worthwhile weight saving and better stiffness.

The GRP construction approval process was a calculated gamble; if it failed there would be little time left to build two aluminium 12m yachts. But with Fay’s consent the gamble was taken and the process started.

Bowler and Holland liaised closely with Lloyds and it took over seven months and countless meetings before in July 1985 approval was achieved for the construction of two GRP 12m yachts.

Meantime boatbuilders McMullen and Wing had lofted and built a timber plug, which Marten Marine would use for the actual GRP laminating.

Being the first-ever GRP 12m yacht and conscious of potential litigation from the other America’s Cup challengers, Lloyds strictly monitored the GRP laminating. One of its surveyors, Jamie Course, was present every day at Marten Marine overseeing the work.

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Every gram of GRP and resin was accounted for by weighing everything that was laminated onto the mould, then subtracting the GRP scraps and the resin left in trays, rollers and workers’ clothing. Temperature and humidity controls were in place and daily records kept.

Meantime, McMullen and Wing had built the aluminium space frames to fit inside the GRP hulls and the complicated mould for the winged keels. The first of the two GRP 12m yachts, KZ3, was launched on November 30, 1985, but due to a deformed keel mould, without her keel. This was quickly rectified and on December 28 the second 12m, KZ5, was launched. After brief trials on the Waitemata, on Jan 4, 1986, KZ3 and KZ5 were shipped to Perth aboard the Jebsen Southland.

Waiting or due to arrive in Perth were 16 syndicates. Besides the four Australian defenders vying for the right to defend the America’s Cup, there were 12 other challengers: six from America, two from France, two from Italy, and one each from England and Canada.

This formidable line-up of yachts, talent, money and experience would have to be overcome if New Zealand was to win the 1987 America’s Cup. But with the 12m Worlds due to start on February 7 and the Louis Vuitton Challenger series on October 5, the BNZ Challenge was already on the back-foot time-wise.

REFLECTIONS ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Additional research Alan Sefton; photos Rob Tucker, Boating New Zealand archives, RNZYS archives, photo of Michael Fay courtesy Rob Tucker Collection, Sir George Grey Special Collection, Auckland Libraries.