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America's Cup

The uninitiated will be hard-pressed to avoid talk of Auckland's regattas and races, and inevitably, of the America's Cup. The history of this prestigious sailing race includes the longest winning streak in sports history: the United States held the prize from the race's 1851 inception until Australia successfully challenged for it in 1983. Perhaps due to the healthy rivalry New Zealand has long had with its trans-Tasman neighbor, the Kiwis developed a keen interest in the "Auld Mug" (as the silver trophy has affectionately been dubbed).

In 1995 Team New Zealand, aka Black Magic (its yacht was black), challenged for the cup and won, becoming the second non-U.S. nation to ever do so and people are still talking about it. This was an enormous coup for a nation relatively small of stature and piggybank, and New Zealanders rode an ecstatic wave of national pride. Team leaders Sir Peter Blake and Russell Coutts gained hero status, and Blake's lucky red socks were elevated to icons of the Kiwi effort.

The glory continued into 2000 when New Zealand was again the victor, becoming the first non-U.S. team to successfully defend the cup. But then tragedy, infighting, equipment failure, and disappointment took the wind out of New Zealand's sails. In 2001 Sir Peter Blake was murdered by Amazonian pirates; in 2003 skipper Coutts controversially "defected" to the challenging Swiss team, which won the cup away from New Zealand. Kiwi musician Dave Dobbyn's yachting anthem "Loyal" played endlessly and bitterly amid cries of Traitor.

The race has long been plagued by legal wrangling, and as bigger dollars and egos scrap for the mug the battleground is often more courtroom than high seas. Despite all of this unfortunate nonsense, there is still a great sailing race to behold: land-based bipeds scamper frantically over multimillion dollar super-engineered vessels, which skim over waves in an often-vain but always magnificent bid to harness the forces of nature. It makes for powerful, heart-in-the-mouth display, and it's understandable that since the Kiwis have had a sip from the sailing grail, they are thirsty for more. So if you mention Black Magic, the Auld Mug, or cheap red socks to a Kiwi, you'll elicit a somewhat rueful smile: the America's Cup has been heartwarming and heartbreaking for this nation and there are high hopes for a win in the future. www.americascup.com.

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