The Auld Mug

Photo (c) TVNZ 2013

1.5 million of us Kiwis watched the America's Cup, which is pretty impressive in a country of a little over 4 million. Even as I turned on my TV at 8 every morning and waited impatiently to see if the winds would be right in San Francisco Bay I wondered why. After all, the America's Cup must be as far from the mythical Kiwi image we all try and project as it's possible to get.

For a start, two syndicates spending more than a quarter of a billion between them on yachts that would have no use whatsoever once one of them crossed the final line seems to give a pretty big two fingered salute to our clean and green self talk, even if they are wind powered. And then there's the whole cup ethos. Ever since the schooner America beat the field in the Isle of Wight race in 1851 to claim the cup for the first time, it has been a contest of egos between extremely rich men for a prize with no real intrinsic value. What with sailing being probably the most highly regulated sport on the planet, and with the yachts being taken from the water to be weighed and measured after every race, it is a contest in which it is pretty near impossible to actually cheat. But within the rules laid down for the conduct of the race and for the construction of the boats the tradition of the cup has always been that competitors use all their vast reserves of money and ingenuity and personnel to carve out some small advantage for themselves. So the contest is one of management, where the skills of designer, engineer, sailmaker, boatbuilder, programmer and, occasionally, lawyer are as decisive as those of helmsman and navigator. You can't win the America's cup without having lots and lots of money, or at least knowing where to get it. You can't win if you allow your sympathy for your opponent get in the way of your desire to be first. As Sir Peter Blake said,

"To win, you have to believe you can do it. You have to be passionate about it. You have to really "want" the result - even if this means years of work."

 So how does this sit with us Kiwis with our self professed egalitarianism and our instinctive empathy with the underdog? Why does this waterborne parallel of Formula One car racing take on such symbolic significance for us? Why are we gripped by a contest where the winner is the one who can best get one over the other guy? Why in the country which first enfranchised women and where we took social responsibility so seriously do we become obsessed by a pointless competition between extremely rich men?

We all live fairly close to the sea, so a lot of us sail, or at least have had a crack at it. Many of us have had the experience of actually racing or of crewing for a mate on  the occasional Saturday afternoon, so we do  know the peculiar joys and frustrations of harvesting winds and tides in order to move a boat in a certain direction.

Partly it's spectacle. With the quality of television graphics (designed and developed in New Zealand, of course) and the omnipresence of cameras on and below and above and beside the boats even the least nautically minded spectators can grasp the fundamentals of the race and the subtlety of the tactics. Watched from shore a yacht race is a few triangles of cloth moving picturesquely but incomprehensibly in slow motion in the far distance. On an LCD widescreen  it is a gripping, high powered duel, demanding from its participants high levels of  intelligence and muscle power, steely nerves, patience and quick decision making.

But there's more than that. To quote Peter Blake again,

"The America’s Cup is what it is because it is so difficult to win.
It is not a game for armchair admirals.
It is not a game for the person who is not prepared to come back.
It is not a game for the faint hearted.
It is a game for those who are not scared of pitting themselves against the best that the world has to offer.
It’s a game where winning is almost impossible, almost, but not impossible.
And this is why it is worth fighting for. It is the difficulty that gives any challenge some sense.
This is the essence of life itself."

So the America's cup is the apex of sporting achievement, a task as difficult to accomplish as climbing Everest, and inviting those who dare to knock the b****** off. I guess this explains the attraction for those turning the grinders or squinting anxiously at the sail, the horizon and the opponent, but it still doesn't explain the near religious preoccupation with the cup by those of us who would think twice about being on board the boat if we thought all that sea spray might get us a bit damp or that being out on the bay for so long might cause us to miss our tea.

At the same time that I was compulsively consulting the weather forecast for North Western California as often as I was for Dunedin, I was reading Rene Girard, and he put things into  perspective for me. Seen in the light of Girard, the cup, and the reactions of people around me to the unfolding dramatic narrative of challenge and defence and whitewash and slow, inexorable comeback, became a sort of lived exemplar of much of what I was reading. In short, the phenomena of mimesis, community formation through hero worship and scapegoating and the preservation of the process in mythmaking seemed to be playing out all around me.

In long, I hope I can unpack all of that at another time.


Elaine Dent said…
"Like" to the spectacle part you described so well---yes, those wind and splashing sounds over TV cry out "adventure." Then, too, a high percentage of your 4 million compatriots are tied closer to the ocean in some way by definition of living on islands. But, as for Rene Girard, now you've got me curious.
Anonymous said…
The trouble is, these things are not what I've always thought of as yachts. They look more like flying trampolines. Computerised technology will continue to shave off seconds or micro-seconds, but as with humans running on land, you will soon reach a point where it is physically impossible to go faster. A yacht can't go faster than the wind.
Small nations always crave recognition, and it is (whether recognised or not) part of NZ's national psyche to crave recognition and approval from other nations. Visitors often observe this trait. Whereas most Americans have probably never heard of the America's Cup. Or the World Cup, for that matter.
Modern sport does call for enormous dedication and native ability on the part of participants - but also huge resources of money and infrastructure, which can only be found by franchising the whole exercise as a form of TV entertainment.
This makes the achievement of North and East Africans in middle and long distance running all the more remarkable.

Alden said…
Any explanation regarding Sailing generally or the Americas Cup specifically is multilayered. It is many things on many levels. One of the classic responses given by mountaineers as to why they climb mountains is "Because they are there" which is shorthand for a large book of reasons covering every aspect of the human psyche.

The reason as to why it captures our attention is because on another level this competition concerns archetypes and in Dean and Dalton et al we see the "Journey of the Hero" and as viewers of their drama we empathise and feed vicariously of their journey - I think it is our own personal potential for the 'Hero' writ large. On a certain level, their living out of this archetype provides inspiration for the heroism that is required of us all within our own at times mundane lives.
As to whether such a large amount of money should be spent on this rich mans folly when the same drama could be played out with a small percentage of what has been spent is like trying to answer the question as to why we debate this ACup question within our own culture at all, whilst we ourselves are awash with such huge material largess at the same time as two thirds of the world go to bed hungry every night.
Kelvin Wright said…
Yes Alden, you more than anybody else in my acquaintance would know.

Anonymous, I've broken my rule about publishing with no name because in a sense your comment about wanting recognition presages what I want to say in my next post on the subject which is about mimesis.

and just by the by, yachts can go faster than the wind as any AC observer will tell you. The AC72s routinely do about twice the windspeed - over 40 knots boatspeed in about 20 knots of breeze. Albatrosses can glide at 3 or 4 times the windspeed, so although there must be a theoretical physical limit, we're a long way from it yet.
Anonymous said…
My sole attempt at handling a sailboat ended up capsized in Otago Harbour. Landlubber that I am, I stand corrected on the subject of
I thought I had given my name.