SAN DIEGO (AP) – The champagne was on ice and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron was eager to welcome back the America’s Cup to its trophy room.
Emirates Team New Zealand was that close to victory on San Francisco Bay.
Corks never popped. The Auld Mug never made it back Down Under.
Four years after their soul-crushing loss to Oracle Team USA, the Kiwis are back for another shot at sailing’s Holy Grail. The Kiwis have already made waves by putting cycling stations on their 50-foot, foiling catamaran to help power it round Bermuda’s Great Sound.
Yes, there are still scars from their shocking loss in 2013. There’s also a new focus going into the opening races of Round Robin 1 of the qualifiers on Friday, when the Kiwis will face Groupama Team France.
Emirates Team New Zealand is considered one of the favorites to win the Louis Vuitton trophy and face two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA in the 35th America’s Cup match starting June 17.
Glenn Ashby, an Australian who has replaced Dean Barker as skipper, thinks the Kiwis have a stronger team and are mentally tougher than in 2013. There are talented new sailors mixed among veterans eager to atone for the gut-wrenching 2013 defeat.
“We’re in a good space and everybody definitely remembers that,” said Ashby, who trims the giant wing mainsail. “It gives you a bit of fuel for the fire to get out there and absolutely put the best foot forward. And hopefully Lady Luck will be on our side this time around.”
It seems she owes the Kiwis.
Team New Zealand reached match point in 2013 against Oracle, which had been penalized two points in the standings for the biggest cheating scandal in America’s Cup history. The Kiwis were well ahead in what would have been the clinching race. But due to fickle winds, the time limit expired and the race was abandoned.
Oracle stunned the Kiwis by winning the next eight races to retain the silver trophy. It was one of the greatest comebacks – and collapses – in sports.
A lesser team might have folded. The Kiwis didn’t. They sacked Barker, who’s now skipper of startup syndicate SoftBank Team Japan, and powered on against the establishment.
Team New Zealand joined Italy’s Luna Rossa in opposing an unprecedented midstream downsizing of the boats that was approved by the regatta organizers and other syndicates in 2015. The Italians were so incensed they dropped out after already investing millions of dollars in their boat design. The Kiwis stayed in, but their support for the Italians cost them a regatta in Auckland and with it, badly needed government funding.
There wasn’t much time for self-pity.
“You learn from every campaign, the good bits and the bad bits,” chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge said. “We took a lot of lessons out of the loss in San Francisco and implemented them early. That’s the sort of playbook we’re running this campaign by.”
Team New Zealand has added helmsman Peter Burling, 26, and his Olympic teammate Blair Tuke, 27. They won the gold medal in the 49er class at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics after taking the silver in 2012.
And then there’s the “cyclor” grinding system. Rather than having their beefy grinders turn winches with their arms, ETNZ built four cycling stations into each hull to harness leg power to run the hydraulic systems used to trim the wing sail and operate the foils.
Among the sailing crew are Simon van Velthooven, an Olympic cycling bronze medalist, and Joe Sullivan, an Olympic rowing gold medalist.
ETNZ’s website lists several crew members as “cyclist.” They’ll rotate through the six-man crew, particularly on two- and three-race days.
Ashby, himself an Olympic silver medalist, said the cyclor system is just “a small part of a hugely complex program.” But it sure has the rest of the America’s Cup crowd talking and wondering how it will work.
Team New Zealand first hoisted the America’s Cup in victory after stunning Dennis Conner off San Diego in 1995. It successfully defended it in 2000 before losing it in 2003. It reached the match in 2007 and 2013, losing both times.
It certainly has the support of its tiny, sailing-mad island nation of 4.6 million people.
“We’re trying to right the wrongs of our last campaign and we think we can,” Ashby said. “We absolutely have a fantastic chance at this. If Lady Luck plays a role, we’ll have a higher chance.”
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson