NEW ZEALANDERS take their sports seriously. With a population roughly that of Philadelphia and a land area two-thirds the size of California, New Zealand cannot take on the world economically. It can't take it on militarily. It can't set international trends or tastes. What it can do is play the underdog. And as the Kiwi crews have proved repeatedly during preliminaries to the America's Cup finals, New Zealanders are unrelenting competitors, who love their role as David challenging the world's Goliaths.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when New Zealand launched its challenge for the America's Cup, now in the hands of Australia, it had never before participated in yachting's richest and most-famous event. It had no experience with 12-meter yachts. It did not have the money or technical expertise that the other competitors commanded. But as New Zealand and her crew sail in the challenger finals at Fremantle, Australia, this week against the lavishly backed Americans, it's clear they've got something else.
The winner will move on to compete for the America's Cup against an Australian boat in a best-of-seven series beginning Jan. 31. Over the last four months New Zealand has eliminated 12 other challengers from six countries in the preliminary rounds.
The United States, using vast technical and financial reserves in an effort to win back the cup held by the New York Yacht Club for more than 100 years, is represented in the finals by Stars & Stripes.
The odds against New Zealand are great - and indeed the Kiwis lost to the San Diego-based boat captained by Dennis Conner in Tuesday's opening race. New Zealand skipper Chris Dickson was not downcast, however, noting that this was a best-of-seven series, and that there was still plenty of racing left.
During preparations for the finals, Dickson and his companions played down the vast difference in resources between the two teams.
``You make a mistake in confusing money with professionalism,'' argues Jim Blair, trainer for New Zealand's crew.
An immigrant from Scotland 25 years ago, Mr. Blair is confident and evidently unsurprised by New Zealand's strong showing. ``There's something different about the Kiwi,'' he says. ``If I could bottle it, I'd make a fortune.''
Some say it's poise and sang-froid in the face of long odds, along with patience, modesty, and a fierce competitive spirit. When Conner contested New Zealand's unorthodox fiberglass construction, which resulted in an examination by Lloyd's of London and eventual exoneration, the Kiwi crew's response was: Don't get mad, get even.
New Zealand's yacht is the first-ever fiberglass entry in the America's Cup and only the third glass 12-meter ever built. The first two, built by the syndicate financing New Zealand's challenger, were raced against each other in last January's 12-meter world championships to test and refine the design. The resulting third boat, KZ-7 (now usually referred to as simply New Zealand), has proved fast enough to sweep her competitors and durable enough to withstand the stress of Fremantle's vicious seas. Dubbed the ``Plastic Fantastic'' by her grudging admirers, she's called ``Kiwi Magic'' at home.
If the yacht is proof of Kiwi magic, the crew embodies Kiwi determination. Since September 1985, when 180 yachtsmen reported to Auckland's Institute of Sports and Corporate Health, the New Zealand team has undergone exacting and lengthy training. While other teams use psychologists and motivators to keep them going during the long, hard slogging, these men seem to drive themselves, observers say.
``Guys like this don't need motivation,'' says Blair, trainer for many of his country's top athletes. ``They really are the most superb young men I've ever had the pleasure of dealing with.''
After the first three months of assessments, the syndicate chose 36 men to crew the two prototypes, KZ-3 and KZ-5, in the world championships. The yachts arrived in Fremantle only hours before the championships opened. KZ-5 had 12 hours' experience on the water, KZ-3 a scant three hours.
``We definitely were rookies,'' Blair says. But KZ-5 sailed to a surprising second place, while KZ-3, even with gear problems, finished seventh. Last February the team was cut to 26 sailors, then in July to 21, where it remains. The present crew, skippered by 25-year-old Dickson, the youngest helmsman of the cup challengers, was named in August.
Before the championships, Blair spent hours watching videotapes of 12-meter races to see what each crewman did. While KZ-3 and KZ-5 were battling it out, he was timing each effort from a nearby chase boat. He learned which of the crew's maneuvers require speed and which require power. He then refined his training regimen to aid relevant movements on board.
For this a simulation device had to be built. The cost of the challenge mounted. But New Zealanders are great handymen. Mint-condition 30- and 40-year-old cars are as common on the roads as newer models. Modern conveniences come too dear in this remote country to retire them very soon. What the Kiwis couldn't afford to buy, they built.
For example, they constructed a sail-hoisting grinding machine by scavenging an old disc brake from a junkyard. They converted it to hydraulic power so the pressure could be slowly or rapidly changed, and presented the grinders-in-training (a ``grinder'' is a crew member who turns winches) with a simulator that replicated sailing conditions more closely than anything they could buy. ``Last February it took up to 18 seconds to hoist a sail,'' says Blair. ``By July we were under seven seconds.''
Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, team members sail, train, and work on the boat. Blair has devised workouts for each crewman that develop strength, speed, and stamina for specific tasks.
Back home the effort to pay for the challenge moves apace. Banks, airlines, and companies of all kinds have donated what they could and dedicated more. Children wear T-shirts proclaiming ``Kiwi Magic.'' People hum ``Sailing Away,'' the record-breaking, double-platinum Kiwi challenge song. If the cup should come to Auckland, some say, the whole country will turn out to accept it. As one newspaperman put it wryly, ``If we win, I'm emigrating.''
But in this country where every television is tuned to the America's Cup, where every pub and grocery store displays moment-by-moment tallies of the day's performances, there remains a feeling that no matter what the outcome, New Zealand's showing is, as the national expression goes, ``a good one.''
``Statistically, New Zealand should never win [in any sport],'' says David Norriss of the Institute of Sports and Corporate Health here. ``So when we do take on other countries, we're very serious about it.''