Te Rehutai may be that champion racehorse, retired to green pastures after a brief Group One career that ended before being able to show just how far she could really stretch her legs.
The sublime AC75 went from strength to strength over 10 races in the 36th America’s Cup and was only truly hitting her stride when she won the match, 7-3, against the more seasoned Luna Rossa on the Hauraki Gulf racecourse.
Having eclipsed the magical mark of 50 knots of speed under the pressure of racing, she promised still more to unleash, especially in stronger winds – but never got the chance to race in them.
One more day, one more race, and we may have seen just how much Te Rehutai thrives in the breeze.
“Upwind in 15 to 20 knots – absolutely sensational,” Emirates Team New Zealand’s head of design, Dan Bernasconi, said after the team were again handed the Auld Mug.
“We were looking at tomorrow’s forecast thinking there was a little silver lining if we were racing tomorrow because the breeze was up…”
“So why did you win it then?” Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena chipped in.
It would have been hard to convince the Team NZ crew to return to the racecourse today. Some were simply relieved to have successfully defended the Auld Mug, like veteran sail controller Glenn Ashby. “I’m bloody happy to put it in the shed.”
But flight controller Blair Tuke reckons we haven’t seen the last of this boat – the first champion of the radical foiling monohull generation.
“I think Te Rehutai will still be good for some more. We’ve sailed her only maybe 60 days,” he said, drenched in the spray of champagne.
“The AC75 is an amazing class of boat – definitely the coolest we’ve sailed – obviously in speed, but also in manoeuvrability and in racing. We’ll have to wait and see, but I reckon she’s got a bit more life in her yet.”
Perhaps we’ll see Te Rehutai race in the America’s Cup again. There are suggestions that if this Cup is to grow in stength, and lure more than three challengers in the next edition, fledgling teams should be allowed to buy and race these first generation AC75s.
Team NZ may not be ready to hand on the secrets of Te Rehutai, when it’s clear this is the class they’ll continue to develop and race for at least another Cup cycle.
But all of that – the future of the class and the Cup – has yet to be decided. The next venue (Auckland is still far from guaranteed) and who is the next Challenge of Record will wait for another day.
Gracious in victory, Team NZ paid tribute to their Italian rivals for creating a boat that pushed their sailing skills to the limit in the first three days of the match.
“There’s always a risk when you go to a completely new class in the America’s Cup that it will be a bit one-sided,” Bernasconi said. “We worried that somebody would get it right and somebody would get it wrong, and the racing wouldn’t be there.
“But it was an absolutely amazing effort by the Luna Rossa design team.” Even though the two competing boats had very different hulls, foils and sails, “it was so close.”
Yet the Italians finally conceded that Team NZ had the faster boat. Co-helmsman Jimmy Spithill joked with fellow Australian Ashby that at times it was “like taking a knife to a gunfight.”
Sirena, a veteran of five Italian campaigns but yet to win with one, was struggling with the loss. It was the best performance by an Italian team in the America’s Cup (before this they had only won a single race), but understandably he wasn’t happy.
He’s a sportsman He wanted to win. And it was frustrating knowing his team had sailed superbly over the past three months – going from strength to strength in the Prada Cup, winning almost every start in the America’s Cup match and making few errors out on the course.
But it’s almost written in the America’s Cup protocol: The fastest boat shall always win.
Nevertheless, Sirena was proud of the way Luna Rossa had rebuilt virtually from scratch – after skipping the 2017 Cup – and the way his team had “reacted” during the campaign.
“One of our problems sometimes is that we over-react, when we race and everything goes well. So we did a lot of work to change our mentality – which is sometimes our strength, sometimes our weakness,” he said. “But it wasn’t enough.”
And he promised they would be they back for another shot. Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli, at home in Tuscany, had assured him so.
But they won’t be back as the Challenger of Record in the next Cup, after their relationship soured with Team NZ throughout the event. The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, holders of the America’s Cup, confirmed last night they’d received a hip pocket challenge – issued the moment Team NZ crossed the finish line – but wouldn’t confirm from whom.
It has to be the worst kept secret on Auckland’s waterfront that it will be the Royal Yacht Squadron, the original owners of the Auld Mug (back when it was the Hundred Guineas Cup), and the club behind Sir Ben Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK.
The deal was almost certainly done on board Imagine, the superyacht owned by Team NZ’s generous benefactor, Matteo di Nora.
From Mother’s Day 1995 to St Patrick’s Day 2021 – New Zealand is now the first nation to successfully challenge and defend the America’s Cup twice.
Team NZ CEO Grant Dalton, who’s led the syndicate since 2003 and could well retire after this one, called it “a crowning moment”.
From the unusual – and unexpected – 3-3 deadlock the defenders found themselves in after the first three days, they were never beaten and never looked like losing. They sailed better and faster as the week went on, finding smoother ways out of their tacks, starting stronger and revealing the right sailing modes in the boat to counter the Italians.
As the pent-up emotion in the Team NZ crew finally erupted into the backslaps, handshakes and hugs, Luna Rossa was still sailing towards the finish line in race 10, eventually crossing 44s in arrears.
Tuke and his Olympic champion partner, Team NZ skipper Peter Burling, had their own celebration. “We gave each a bit of a slap around the head and said: ‘Well done buddy’,” Tuke said.
There was elation but also relief – defending the America’s Cup isn’t simple.
As well as organising the event, first you have to get the design of the boat right – and in this case, Team NZ’s 35-strong design team started with a blank sheet of paper before dreaming up the radical AC75. Then get the construction right – for the very first time, the New Zealanders built their boats, Te Aihe and Te Rehutai, in-house.
And then the arrowhead of your three-year campaign, the sailors, have to get the most out of the boat. Team NZ didn’t sail against another boat for three months while they watched Luna Rossa gather pace through the challenger series, and they were by all accounts rusty.
“What you saw in the first few days wasn’t the best the boat could go. We didn’t sail as well as we could have,” Tuke says.
“But we were improving all the time, and we’re stoked. The way we kept making good decisions when it mattered most is something we’re incredibly proud of.
“The team’s as strong as Team New Zealand has ever been. It was a strong team that came through from Bermuda, but we bolstered it since then as well.”
They finished on a high note too. After waiting for the 10 knot north-easterly breeze to finally arrive on Course A just before 5pm, Team NZ gave their most comprehensive performance of the match. Te Rehutai was in a class of her own.
Burling went into the start box of Race 10 with a deliberate strategy – he wanted the right side of the start line, and managed to protect it from Luna Rossa. Although the Italians crossed the line first, Team NZ were willing to tack away immediately so they could claim the right, and with it, the lead. Call it a start victory to Burling.
On a shifty day, the pressure switched to the left where Luna Rossa made inroads, but when they met in the middle, Team NZ was in front albeit by just metres. Flicking over to the left, the Kiwis made a decent gain before the top mark to lead by 7s.
They stretched out on the run, and although the Italians appeared to be catching them, a difficult mark rounding cancelled out their good work. Out in front and covering the Italians loosely, Te Rehutai was able to spread her wings and fly.
She was five knots faster than her rival at times, and as commentator Shirley Robertson pointed out: “This final lap is like a lap of honour.”
Te Rehutai finished her 2021 campaign with a victory lap of the Waitemata Harbour, towed slowly through the heavy, horn-honking flotilla of boats waiting outside the Viaduct.
Inside, the rest of the team and the families also waited. Trevor Mallard, the Speaker of the House, who’s been a volunteer in the team’s hospitality area helping sponsor guests onto VIP boats every weekend race day since the Prada Cup began, had rushed from chairing Parliament in the afternoon, jumped on a plane in Wellington, to arrive at the base for Te Rehutai’s welcome home.
The government were quick to jump on board with a congratulatory gift – announcing they’d already agreed to support the team so they could stay together while the next defence is planned. The money comes from what’s left over from the $136.5 million set aside in the 2018 Budget for Cup infrastructure and activities this time around.
But for now, the bucks stop there. There won’t be any victory parades like we’ve seen for Team NZ victories of the past. In a pandemic-ravaged world, this isn’t the time or the climate – and Team NZ seem content to celebrate their victory in the same subdued, behind-closed-doors style with which they’ve run their entire campaign.