The morning the America’s Cup first touched down in Auckland, rainbows criss-crossed the runway.
It was May 24, 1995, and the world’s oldest sporting trophy had flown first class across the Pacific to its new home.
The celebrations as Team New Zealand finally clinched the Auld Mug, after a decade of trying, had stretched out for a week across the United States – the team taking the ornate ewer on a farewell tour from San Diego, to New York and Washington DC. But nothing could have prepared them for the tsunami of national fervour that was about to engulf them.
From inside their San Diego bubble – a place where I had spent plenty of time reporting on the 1995 America’s Cup for the NZ Herald – the team had all heard about the Mother’s Day Sunday celebrations back in New Zealand. But no one could truly comprehend the euphoria that the Cup victory had brought New Zealanders, until stepping off that plane in Auckland.
Immediately after Team NZ had won in San Diego – only the second time the Cup had been wrested from the Americans in 144 years – Frenchman Bruno Troublé arranged for the team, and the handful of Kiwi media covering the Cup, to fly to New York with the Auld Mug in tow. Louis Vuitton generously footed the bill.
Troublé wanted Team NZ to take the Cup to dinner at the New York Yacht Club, which had been home to the silverware for 132 years. “I wanted them to understand the history of the Cup, to see where it had come from,” he says today. “When I was 17 years old, I first went to the NYYC – and I knew from that moment that I wanted to win the America’s Cup, just from standing in the model room.”
The elaborate model room houses the foremost collection of yacht models in the world; 1350 scale models of boats that have sailed in NYYC regattas, including the America’s Cup, since 1845. It is truly awe-inspiring.
I remember speaking in hushed tones to Jane Dent, TVNZ’s outstanding sports journalist, about how fortunate we were to be in the hallowed halls of the 44th Street clubhouse in mid-town Manhattan. Women had only been allowed as fully-fledged members since 1985.
After breakfast, the following day, in the Four Seasons Restaurant – the scene of many power lunches in the Big Apple – we flew to Washington DC, for a reception with President Clinton in the White House. But history shows that he was busy enforcing a trade ban with Iran that day (soon after, Monica Lewinsky would start her internship there). Instead, we went to a barbeque with the New Zealand embassy staff and acclaimed Kiwi yacht designer Bruce Farr, who was now living in Annapolis.
A few days later, Team NZ were ready to fly home on Air New Zealand flight NZ1032, specially chartered for the crew of NZL32, from Los Angeles direct to Auckland.
As is tradition, the America’s Cup travelled in its own first class seat inside its bespoke Louis Vuitton travel case, buckled in with a special seat belt. The monogrammed trunk was almost as prized as the trophy inside it. (Apparently the new trunk the Cup – now en-route to Auckland – is in took three men over 400 hours to painstakingly handcraft).
Sir Peter Blake sat across the aisle from the silverware. A security guard was close by. But we could still sneak up and snatch photos with the unusual passenger, well before the selfie was invented.
There was a shared feeling across the team of elation, exhaustion and excitement to be finally going home after five intense months in San Diego.
Burly grinder Craig Monk missed his 28th birthday in transit, but we toasted a glass of champagne to him nevertheless. Most of the passengers threw back a sleeping pill, took a full row of seats to themselves and slept most of the journey home.
The team was woken for breakfast just before landing, dining on trout fillets and apple pancakes. It would be like a last supper before tasting reality.
The arrival in Auckland was unforgettable. The pilot took us on a fly-by over the Hauraki Gulf – which would be the scene of thousands of hours of testing, training and racing over the next eight years. Did I imagine it, or did the pilot waggle our wings at the city below?
As the plane came in to land at Auckland Airport, fire trucks sprayed arches of water in welcome, creating rainbows. A greeting party of VIPs cheered as Blake and Russell Coutts carried the naked America’s Cup between them down the plane steps.
People waved madly to the team buses all along the route to Queen St, where 350,000 waited for a celebration parade the likes of which Auckland had never seen before. A flurry of confetti rained down from high rises; screaming kids who’d taken the day off school spilled on to the roads. I avoided the crush, heading home to try to catch up on washing and lost sleep.
The parades continued the length of the country. An astounded Blake later wrote: “Nothing in the world could have prepared us for the reception we received. It was really very moving to see so many people, young and old, with tears in their eyes, as New Zealand gave us the most memorable days of our lives.
“Pippa was still finding tickertape in my pockets weeks later.”
Peter Burling’s mum, Heather, is likely to be doing the same.