Below decks with the Cup’s new keeper

Below decks with the Cup’s new keeper

Steve Mair, the young commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, never got to see the final race of the 2017 America’s Cup live. He was locked in a boat on Bermuda’s Great Sound, deep in a James Bond-style covert mission.

Mair was concealed within a gleaming superyacht, while boat staff stood guard around the deck, instructed to kick into the ocean any packages or envelopes that might be suddenly hurled on board.

Even accepting peanuts from a yacht stewardess, Mair knew, could be a risk he couldn’t afford.

Back in Auckland, the Squadron’s servers were switched off half an hour before the estimated finish of what was shaping up to be the final America’s Cup race between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle. Phones were taken off the hook; mobile ignored. Every member of staff was instructed not to accept any documents delivered to the Squadron’s headquarters at Westhaven during or immediately after the race.

“It was true cloak and dagger stuff, and it was fascinating,” Mair, 42, reveals of the behind-the-scenes drama that played out the day Team NZ won back the Auld Mug.

Mair was in lock-down on board Imagine, the superyacht of Team New Zealand principal Matteo di Nora. With him was Agostino Randazzo, the president of Cicolo della Vela Sicilia, the Italian yacht club preparing to become the Challenger of Record for the 36th America’s Cup, should Emirates Team New Zealand take out their eighth and decisive win of the match.

In one of those intriguing America’s Cup traditions, the first yacht club to hand over a legitimate challenge – literally within seconds of the Cup match concluding – becomes the official Challenger of Record for the next Cup regatta. It gives that challenger the right to negotiate the rules and format of the event with the defender.

It was a poorly kept secret that Team NZ wanted the Challenger of Record to be Luna Rossa, Patrizio Bertelli’s Italian team with whom they’d built a long friendship stemming back to the 2000 Cup in Auckland. But Team NZ’s home yacht club went to extreme lengths to make it near-on impossible for another challenge to be slipped into their hands.

So Mair, Randazzo and their respective lawyers watched on a TV screen, while outside, Peter Burling drove the black and red catamaran across the finish-line to victory. Within two seconds, Mair had Luna Rossa’s challenge documents in his hand. Two photographers and a videographer (Mair’s wife Anna) captured the acceptance for perpetuity.

The RNZYS accepts the challenge of Cicolo della Vela Sicilia, sparking a rash of Italian man hugs

“It’s not a nice way to watch the final race in the America’s Cup,” Mair says. “It was very tense. But it was such a cool thing to be involved in. I’ve never had so many Italian man hugs.”

Mair is now aware there were other teams wanting to be the CoR for the next Cup. “I know of two groups that have questioned the validity of the challenge,” he says. “But we knew we had dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s.”

Since Mair took custody of the world’s oldest sports trophy, now residing behind alarmed, bullet-proof glass on the mezzanine floor above the Squadron’s ballroom, life has continued to have a touch of “secret agent” about it.

Although he has his own marine engineering businesses to attend to, Mair drops into the Squadron every second day. He has a new responsibility – as a holder of the key to the safe that holds the key to the case that holds the America’s Cup.

That’s not the only duty that has come with the silverware. Mair, halfway through his two-year term as commodore, is determined to make the Auld Mug more accessible to New Zealanders, and to tidy it up a little (replacing the base of the trophy, after recent winners used a bigger font to record their victories). He also wants to build on the already-strong relationship the RNZYS has with Team NZ, and to help them prepare for an exceptional America’s Cup in Auckland in 2021.

The Cup has already delivered good things to the Squadron. In the month since Team NZ won in Bermuda, club membership has increased by 300, to just over 2900 members. This a normal phenomenon after a Team NZ victory.

“They tend to be people who are part of Team NZ’s wider circle, or who were members previously, but have re-engaged with the club, and feel part of it again,” Mair explains.

And that’s perfectly in-line with what Mair and the general committee have been trying to achieve in recent years – to change the public perception of New Zealand’s most well-known yacht club and make it a place where people feel comfortable and have fun.

“We want to be at the top end of world sailing; not some crusty old sailors sitting around the bar running races on weekends.”

– Steve Mair

For decades, the 166-year-old Squadron has struggled to shrug off its reputation as a fusty old boys’ club filled with mahogany, leather and silverware. “There’s a saying that goes around the ‘Royal’ clubs: ‘Pale, stale and male’,” Mair admits.

“Five years ago, we had to look at what we offered; were we still relevant? Our membership was dropping, and ageing.” The average age of members was over 60. When Mair first brought his toddler daughter Lola into the club, “they looked at her like she was a little alien”.

“We had focus groups come in, who told us they felt intimidated by it all, they didn’t feel comfortable. There’s a huge amount of tradition, which is great, but you have to make sure you’re here for the right reasons. We’re not here to be a museum, or a retirement home. We’re here to promote yachting, and do whatever we can to get in behind Team NZ. We want a club that will be here for our grandkids.”

With a younger and more diverse general committee, the Squadron has undergone a much-needed overhaul.

There’s an emphasis on fun, with more parties, and more family involvement. An adult learn-to-sail school started last year, which Mair says is now the largest in the country. A new ‘crew’ membership has drawn in 400 people who don’t own a boat, but still want to sail.

Around 60 percent of the club’s members own a boat. Mair has a Riviera 43 flybridge launch called Augabamesan (a name created by his daughter).

The club has quickly moved with the times to introduce foiling boats to their training fleet.

“Foiling has turned tradition on its head – now sailors are going straight from dinghies into America’s Cup boats. The traditional pathway was whipped out from under us, so we had to adapt quickly. We are now the only club in the world doing foiling training,” Mair says.

Later this year, they will run an international foiling camp at Kawau Island. There are spots for 10 nations, and 16 have put their names forward. “China want to run a whole programme down here,” Mair says.

“We want to be at the top end of world sailing; not some crusty old sailors sitting around the bar running races on weekends.”

There is still no dinghy sailing at the Squadron; Westhaven isn’t ideal for it. From the age of 15, young yachties can apply to join the Youth Training Programme, which has turned out some of the country’s best sailors over the past 30 years.

Two years ago the club created a Performance Programme to help young elite sailors break into international competition. Eight of the nine crew who sailed in the Youth America’s Cup were from the club’s two sailing programmes; another crew, skippered by Chris Steele and Graeme Sutherland, is competing in the global Extreme Sailing Series, racing foiling cats.

Team NZ wants a more hands-on involvement with their home yacht club – they’ve already offered to help to train and support the youth sailors. In return, the Squadron will promote the Team NZ brand around the world.

The Squadron is also about to take the Auld Mug on a tour of yacht clubs throughout the country. “We want other yacht clubs to have their time in the sun; to get more people to come into their clubs,” Mair says. He also wants to take it to visit schools and charities.

A new mobile glass cabinet is being made for the roadshow – “we want to get the Cup to as many people as possible, but still ensure it is safe and secure”.

Mair believes the RNZYS has the best relationship it has had with Team NZ in a very long time.

“I’m a similar age to a lot of guys in the team, I know a lot of them. The rear commodore Aaron Young and I have sailed against these guys. They really enjoy being here, because they feel as though we are helping them, which makes them happy to help us, too.”

Mair is one of the youngest commodores in the Squadron’s history. A sailor for most of his life, he became a member in 2002, sailing a Young Rocket with a mate. When he lodged a complaint against his handicap, the response was an invitation to join the handicap committee.

“I was then asked to be on the general committee, which I found out later caused some consternation amongst committee members who didn’t want a young guy to join. I was 32… and the rest were 60 plus. I didn’t know much about boards, but I had run my own businesses since I was young,” says Mair, who took over his father’s company Manson Marine making world-class anchors.

“It was really intimidating. All in blazers, and special structures around where we sat. I didn’t say much at first, I just absorbed. But they were a neat bunch of guys.”

The committee has since diversified, and now includes two women – Sheryl Lanigan and Gillian Williams.

Before his term ends in a year’s time, Mair would like to see the four yacht clubs in Westhaven join forces to become one. He also hopes that yacht clubs return to having a strong presence in the America’s Cup.

“I would love to see yacht clubs return like Royal Perth, New York and the Royal Yacht Squadron. We’d like to see challengers from proper clubs, not just a sham for a billionaire. I think New Zealand is doing a pretty good job of looking after the Cup, trying to embrace the history of it, while being commercially savvy too,” he says.

“It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the America’s Cup, so I have to make sure from a club’s point of view that we keep our focus on our members and on sailing. Our mandate is still to promote the sport of yachting.”