Each day when America's Cup boats leave Viaduct Harbor and head out to race on Hauraki Gulf, they pass through a narrow cut where crowds line the quay to cheer the sailors on -- except for one team.
Alinghi, the Swiss boat that leads the challenger series, often meets stony silence. Some Kiwis are angry that Alinghi's skipper and half his sailing team defected from Team New Zealand after winning the 2000 Cup. Other Kiwi sailors followed, joining other teams, but Alinghi gets the blame for starting the trend and taking the cream of the crop.
Skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth played key roles in winning the Cup for New Zealand in 1995 and defending it in 2000. National heroes, they pledged loyalty to the Kiwi cause after the 2000 defense, but soon after signed to work for Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli in his bid to spirit the trophy away to Europe.
These days Coutts and the other ex-Kiwi sailors on Alinghi can glance up from their dock at huge, black banners hung from downtown offices that sport the New Zealand emblem, the silver fern, and a one-word slogan aimed at them: "Loyal." Ads on TV show blackshirted Kiwis lining the island nation's shores, fists over their hearts, vowing loyalty to the Cup defense.
These anti-Alinghi symbols seem tame compared to an alliance called Blackheart, convened before the Cup season began in October. The secret invitation to gather, which found its way into outsiders' hands, quoted Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's call to war: "Forgiveness is up to God; It's our job to arrange this meeting." It described Blackheart as "like-minded, staunch and true New Zealand patriots," asserting, "The time for action is upon us."
A leader of the anti-Alinghi forces is radio and TV talk show host Murray Deaker, who aims his vitriol at Coutts. "I remain bitter and disappointed that he betrayed the country," said Deaker. "I don't object to others leaving, because they didn't put out a call for loyalty. With Russell, it's hypocrisy. He told Team New Zealand to stick together, then he and Brad turned around and approached Bertarelli. He conned us."
Deaker said he spoke to a Blackheart meeting but is not a member. He said trouble may lie ahead. "I think this thing will hit a peak if it comes to a Team New Zealand-Alinghi match for the Cup, and people will get nasty. I won't, but others will."
The prospects for such a matchup are good. Alinghi has set the pace for all challengers, showing innovation in boat design and excellent crew work. With Coutts, Butterworth and a handful of other Kiwis aboard, they have first-hand knowledge of what it takes to win the Cup.
But Coutts expects no trouble. "I think it's a minority, first of all. And second, the events that led to Brad and me moving on have never fully been told. We had reasons, but now is not the time to air them. Most Kiwis know that. No one wanted Team New Zealand to continue more than I did, but it didn't happen and here we are.
"It worked out best for both sides. It made room for young, new talent there and gave me a chance to build a new group with a clean sheet of paper, no baggage. Our financial backer is fantastic, it was a chance for me to live in a new country and the opportunity to do the Louis Vuitton Cup isn't bad, instead of waiting three years to do five races [as defender]."
As for ill will directed at him, Coutts, a ferociously competitive former Olympic gold medalist, said, "I've never once had anyone say anything to me directly. Well, once, when I was flying back right after signing with Alinghi, a New Zealand guy came up to me on the plane and said, 'You've got cheek coming back.'
"I said, 'What's the matter, haven't I done enough?' And that's pretty much how I feel now."
Alinghi spokesman Bernard Schopfer says Coutts's detractors don't understand that the Cup is no longer a nationalistic event. "It's an international event and we are an international team with 15 nations represented. Even Team New Zealand is more international, with a French helmsman (Bertrand Pace, who drives the tuneup boat) and other people from all over. It's clear to us that the teams who don't become international will be at the bottom of the pack."
The America's Cup was a national event for nearly a century and a half, with mostly British, Canadian and Australian challengers. In the last 20 years, as the number of challenges grew, nationalism rules were eased and today, anyone who resides in a challenging nation can sail for that country, regardless of citizenship.
New Zealand made its first Cup try in 1986 and has been almost exclusively Kiwi since. This year, Team New Zealand will fight an uphill battle against a fleet of better financed teams with many Kiwi players, including those backed by billionaires Bertarelli (Alinghi), American Larry Ellison (Oracle/BMW), and Americans Craig McCaw and Paul Allen (OneWorld). The top challenger takes on Team New Zealand in a best-of-nine series starting Feb. 15.
If that challenger turns out to be Alinghi, how will Kiwi fans react?
The possibilities are many and some aren't pretty. Of those withholding applause as Alinghi passed the Viaduct cut one day last week, a few were vehement, but most were not.
"I hope they sink," said John Unasa, a native Aucklander. "Those two fellows on that boat, I don't have to name them, they should retire and give it up. And every friend I know thinks the same."
But Peter Verschaffelt, another local resident, offered a more temperate view, widely shared. "There's a feeling that Russell Coutts and the team are letting the country down, but we understand there are reasons why they left. I'm a strong Team New Zealand supporter. Alinghi is a major obstacle to our keeping the Cup, and that's the only reason we don't cheer for them."