SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) – Thanks to an understanding business partner, Terry Steven has been skipping work lately. Instead, he heads to the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club each morning and tunes into the America’s Cup races.
“It’s been tough watching it,” he said.
For many Kiwis, that’s quite an understatement.
On the verge of winning for nearly a week, Emirates Team New Zealand is now down to the 19th and deciding race against Oracle Team USA.
Fresh off seven straight wins, the Americans are poised to complete the greatest comeback in the 162-year history of sailing’s oldest trophy. The boats are set to go 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 1 million in a country of 4.5 million—to watch Emirates Team New Zealand, leading 8-1, pursue the one win it has needed.
But as the week progressed and as Team USA kept winning, jubilation faded to mere hope and then dwindled to despair as Team New Zealand stumbled toward defeat in the longest regatta in America’s Cup history.
Kate Robinson, who has sailed in the famed Sydney to Hobart yacht race, has been at the Royal Port Nicholson club each day to watch the competition.
She said a week ago she was supporting Oracle’s Australian skipper, Jimmy Spithill.
“I wanted him to do better,” she said. “But not this well.”
And if Team New Zealand loses?
“I’ll probably cry,” she said.
Little optimism remains in New Zealand that Team USA will falter in the winner-take-all 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. 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 betting on the Americans they are 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 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 became more and more improbable.
But some sailing fans on social media were able to display the dry Kiwi sense of humor that often asserts itself in times of crisis.
Ben Hallahan told his Twitter followers that local 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, New Zealanders argued over where, when and how they would defend the trophy and what economic benefits a regatta in New Zealand might bring.
Yet after a week of losses, Kiwis are contemplating the end of Team New Zealand and of the country’s involvement in the America’s Cup.
New Zealand first challenged for the America’s Cup off Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1987, building the world’s first glass-fiber 12-meter yacht to reach the challenger final before losing to American skipper 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 the prize off Auckland in 2000. They lost it to Alinghi of Switzerland in 2003.
In order to keep Team New Zealand going 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 weeklong 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 diminished, 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.”
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