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Sailing mad New Zealand on edge for America’s Cup

    Emirates Team New Zealand sailed past Alcatraz Island during the fifth race of the America's Cup against Oracle Team USA in San Francisco on Tuesday. Emirates Team New Zealand won the race.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand » From boat builders to occasional sailing fans, New Zealanders are on edge about the prospects of wresting the America’s Cup from software billionaire Larry Ellison’s Team USA.

And if Emirates Team New Zealand does go on to win sailing’s oldest and most highly prized trophy, there are likely to be some changes to the next regatta — including cheaper race boats and some strong challengers from Asia.

While sailing remains a niche sport in much of the world and the current event in San Francisco has underperformed expectations due to a lack of initial challengers, all that has hardly mattered Down Under.

Broadcaster Television New Zealand said some 540,000 Kiwis — from a population of 4.5 million — tuned in Sunday morning local time to watch Team New Zealand win the first two races from Ellison’s Oracle Team USA, the defending champions.

By Wednesday, Team New Zealand led by 4 to minus-1 and needed five more wins to claim the Auld Mug, which it previously held from 1995 to 2003. Underscoring how important sailing is to this South Pacific nation, the New Zealand team managed to secure tens of millions of dollars in government funding to back its challenge.

"Sailing is in our DNA," said Brett O’Riley, the chief executive of the Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development agency. He said Team New Zealand’s futuristic 72-foot catamaran is like a bookend to the country’s history, after the first indigenous Maori likely arrived some 800 years ago in primitive catamarans.

O’Riley predicted New Zealand would hold a regatta that would lower the costs of the boats in order to attract more competitors, saying there’s already been strong interest from Asian countries including South Korea and China.

China had intended to mount a challenge in San Francisco but pulled out. O’Riley said Eileen Xiao, who helped start the China Cup International Regatta, has been visiting San Francisco on a scouting mission.

If the Cup does return to New Zealand, a defense will almost certainly be held in Auckland.

John Dalzell, the chief executive of Waterfront Auckland, said it has identified six possible sites to house competitors. It won’t be possible to use the previous site from the 2003 defense, he added, because the bases used by the challengers have since been developed into apartments and a hotel.

Dalzell said the cost of building the infrastructure for an Auckland regatta could be around $81 million, although much would depend on the number of challengers and the size of the boats.

He said multihulls are an emerging trend in global sailing and could remain part of the America’s Cup, because they provide breathtaking speed and excitement. But, he added, that the configuration would likely change.

For its part, Emirates Team New Zealand says it is too premature to talk about what a possible defense of the cup might entail, or what changes it would make.

"We would rather not speculate. We leave that to others," team spokesman Warren Douglas said in an email. "No doubt we will have something to say should there be a happy tale to tell."

If the Cup does return to New Zealand, it’s likely to provide a boon for boat builders, who have become one of New Zealand’s largest and most important manufacturers. The Marine Industry Association says it employs 8,000 people and has annual revenues of $1.3 billion, equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the country’s entire economy.

Peter Busfield, the association’s executive director, said New Zealand has developed a reputation for excellent design and craftsmanship, and it’s no coincidence that much of the work done not only on the New Zealand boat but also on the Oracle and Italian boats was completed in New Zealand.

"We’re a seafaring nation. Most of our grandparents arrived in ships," Busfield said. "We’ve got a small population and a large coastline, and the climate allows you to go boating all year round."

It may be a perfect time for sailing now, but all those boats are likely to stay moored over the next few days as New Zealanders tune in to watch the final stages play out in the 34th defense of the America’s Cup.

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