It is a miserable day on the Solent, a grey strip of water that separates the southern coast of England from the Isle of Wight. The teeming rain, tidal currents and fluky winds will make sailing tough and viewing unpleasant, but nobody at Team New Zealand is complaining. They’re about to race a boat, something they’ve barely done since losing the America’s Cup in agonising circumstances close to two years ago.
In the intervening months they’ve been mocked for choking on an 8-1 lead, been lampooned for asking for more public money and been savaged for the manner in which Dean Barker was removed as skipper. Several good people have packed up and left the Halsey St base including lead designer Nick Holroyd and highly regarded sailors Derek Saward, Jeremy Lomas and Winston Macfarlane. Chairman Keith Turner, who never appeared at ease in the role, quit his post after 12 months, while the America’s Cup Events Authority reneged on an agreement awarding Auckland hosting rights for the qualifying series, ending Team NZ’s chances of further Government funding.
Much of the ill-will towards the team has been directed towards its knotty chief executive, Grant Dalton. Fuelled by barbs from Oracle Team USA hardmen Russell Coutts and Jimmy Spithill and trenchant criticism from media pundits, Dalton has been dressed up as the pantomime villain, an enemy to compromise and, frankly, a giant pain in the arse.
As Dalton steadies himself to jump from a sponsors’ spectator craft to the Team NZ chase boat, a challenging task in the conditions, long-time bowman and now part of the executive team Richard Meachem offers a helping hand before mischievously tripping Dalton and sending him splashing in an undignified heap on to the sodden deck.
Now there’s a sight plenty would have paid to see: the Giant Pain in the Arse brought to his knees by one of his own.
Go on, admit it. Deep down, in the places you don’t care to reach into, you don’t really like Grant Dalton OBE. You’re not sure exactly why, but the animus lurks.
It might be the not-made-for-TV smile that can slide into a smirk. It might be the rich-man-pleads-for-money act. It might just be that some people aren’t built to attract sympathy – just as Christopher Walken could never have played Forrest Gump, Dalton can’t play the part of Sir Peter Blake.
The man who was one win, one puff of wind, for goodness sake, from the keys to the City of Sails has, instead, been subject to a barrage of criticism that can be compared only to World Cup-losing All Black coaches. Through it all, Dalton has remained not so much stoic, but grim-faced.
So here are a few things you should know about Dalton, some of which might confirm your prejudices, others that might surprise.
Dalton doesn’t really like the America’s Cup, certainly not the way it is rigged to make it difficult for challengers. In a convenient, yet apt, analogy, he’ll point out that just because the All Blacks won the World Cup, it doesn’t mean they own the next event, which is effectively what happens in the America’s Cup. Despite having a reputation for seeking rather than circumventing conflict, he hates the needle, the angst and the way the event fosters enmity.
“I’ve spent 25 years in a round-the-world environment, which is a pure environment,” Dalton tells Canvas during one of two lengthy interviews at their makeshift base in Portsmouth. “Your best friends are your competitors because they’re the ones who are going to haul you out of the Southern Ocean. In the America’s Cup your competitors will bury you – legally or any other way they can. Kevin [Shoebridge, Team NZ chief operating officer and Dalton’s closest colleague] and I dislike it in that respect, but we deal with it because we have to.
“Not many nice guys are going to win the America’s Cup.”
Another thing you probably already suspected is that Dalton could easily qualify for the world championship of holding grudges. “I have strong ideals of right and wrong,” he says. His stand-off with broadcasting doyen Peter “P.J.” Montgomery has become the stuff of legend in media circles and there are plenty of others scattered around the world who can testify to being caught on the cold side of Dalton’s right-and-wrong divide.
“People I’m close to I’m really close to. If I’m not, I’m not. I trust really slowly and I lose it instantly. A grudge is normally created by somebody trying to screw you and in the America’s Cup, a lot of people are trying to screw you.
“There are guys here like Shoeb [Shoebridge], Dick [Meacham] and Tony Rae, who I’d trust with my life. There are guys I’m learning to trust … I dunno why, it’s just what I do.”
But just when you think Dalton’s sandpaper-like hide can take anything you throw at it, he reveals another side; one that cares deeply about what he does and those who work for and with him; a side that feels pain.
“I do feel it. Absolutely I do,” he says of the constant criticism. “It’s hurt me and it’s hurt the team, for sure. It’s been death by a thousand cuts. The first few bounce off and eventually they start to cut. The guys, they go home and their wife asks them what’s going on, the neighbour asks them, the butcher asks them.”
Most recently, the questions have all been about Dean Barker and none of the answers have satisfied. He remains the elephant in the tent, even if, like Portsmouth, his tent is two down from Team NZ’s and belongs to Japanese entry (and some would say Oracle surrogate) Softbank.
At the first America’s Cup World Series regatta, Spithill was back on point, playing up to the cameras and needling Team NZ about their former skipper’s departure.
“I was really frustrated with how Dean was dealt with over these past few months,” Spithill said. “It just wasn’t right in my mind.”
To be fair to Spithill, who has an unhealthy obsession with Team NZ’s inner workings, he is far from alone on this issue. A straightforward succession plan instead turned into a Byzantine plot and Dalton has to take a large share of the blame.
As a front-man, Barker roused neither great passion nor distaste. However, all but his staunchest followers knew his time at the helm of Team NZ was up. Since being handed the wheel by Russell Coutts for the final race of the successful defence in 2000, Barker has been given the chance to defend the America’s Cup and to twice challenge for it. He came up short.
Instead of celebrating the elevation of Peter Burling, the country’s most dynamic sailing talent since Coutts, the story became about who leaked the news to broadcaster Tony Veitch. A journalist’s sources are jealously protected and rightfully so, the problem being that everyone apart from the Team NZ board believed the leak was Dalton.
“We just seem to have been incapable or unable to manage it, as much as we’ve tried,” Dalton says. “We had to make changes. It’s just been very public.”
Team NZ say they wanted Barker to stay, offered him a role, he wanted to keep helming and left for another team. They’re fine with that. Barker might have won the PR battle over his ousting but long-term, Team NZ feel they have won the lottery with Burling and his Olympic crewmate Blair Tuke.
So they’re desperate to move on from San Francisco and the bitter end to a compelling campaign but, but … it’s not quite that simple. There is a significant cabal in the New Zealand sailing community who want more clarity over what went on in San Francisco. One of those is Barry McKay, who has worked on five America’s Cup campaigns, including one in Valencia under Dalton.
“I’m a bit outspoken because I just don’t rate the guy,” he says. “The worst thing for me is that after the campaign nobody has taken the time to explain to the public how Team NZ lost from an unloseable position. They said they would. We’re all shareholders in this.
“Nobody has had the balls to stand up and explain it away. That’s disgraceful. Nobody had the gumption. They needed to stand up and say ‘thanks for all your support, these are the reasons we lost and this is what we’re doing about it’. Instead, Grant just put his hand out and asked for more money.”
In this McKay has a point. Team NZ did say they were going to make the campaign review public and then fudged it, forgetting Communications 101 – in an information vacuum, rumours become fact.
So we had two beauties: Dalton called a lay-day when Team NZ had their foot on Oracle’s throat because he wanted key sponsors to get to San Francisco in time to see them win; and Dalton took his eye off the ball because of a messy marriage break-up.
In response, Dalton says he had no choice but to accept a lay-day and there is even a letter from regatta director Iain Murray on their website explaining the decision.
“It’s there in black and white … but the horse had bolted. There were a few like that. The story just wasn’t right but we couldn’t stop it.”
As for his personal life, Dalton reveals that he had been long-separated from his wife Nicki (the couple have three children together) before he even reached San Francisco.
“What the team never knew was that I had been separated for two years at that stage. Now I’ve been separated for five years. Until we left for San Francisco, that guy there [points to Shoebridge] was the only person that knew. I was literally living at the Viaduct. I’d been there for a year.
“I kept it from the team on purpose. They need stability. Sponsors, directors, everybody needs to see stability. The only reason the guys ever knew was because when we moved to San Francisco, I moved by myself.”
Dalton says the only ball he took his eye off was his marriage, not his job. “I’m fully focused, that’s what caused the disruption, the focus I had on my job.”
This time around, Dalton’s grip on the reins is not as tight. Shoebridge effectively runs the sailing operation, Dalton says, while new skipper Glenn Ashby leads the sailors. Dalton, who now lives in Lymington, England, so he can be closer to existing and potential sponsors, runs the business.
To steal a line from seminal Watergate movie All The President’s Men, to get to the heart of Dalton’s hold on Team NZ you have to follow the money.
The astonishing 8-1 lead to 8-9 loss to Oracle in 2013 had Dalton on the point of quitting, but he was encouraged by the support the team initially received on returning and a cheque from Minister for Economic Development Steve Joyce for $5 million. More importantly, influential Team NZ backers were insistent that Dalton stay.
One of them was Sir Stephen Tindall, a self-made multimillionaire and staunch supporter of Dalton.
“To be honest, we couldn’t find anyone else who we believed could get us to Bermuda,” Tindall says of a series of meetings he had with fellow board members Gary Paykel and Bob Field. “You’re going to need an exceptional personality to raise the money and that’s a massive strength of his.”
Tindall is a constant presence during the Ports-mouth weekend. He knows better than anybody that Team NZ need to rebuild their brand and he has faith in Dalton to fulfil that.
“He is one of the most honest guys I’ve ever met. He doesn’t muck around trying to skirt around the issues and that’s possibly not the best from a PR perspective, but the brutal honesty of the guy is incredibly impressive as far as I’m concerned.
“Like all of us, like all leaders, he’s made mistakes. Name me someone who hasn’t. He can be quite frustrating at times. Being on the board, sometimes you have to go through things with him in fine detail to get him across the line.”
Tindall is not naive, saying the three of them knew Dalton’s retention would not be popular, but it was essential. Dalton himself does nothing to counter the idea that without him the bottom line would sink faster than Australia II.
“If I had gone, the team could have been resurrected but if I meant to or not, I’d be taking the money with me simply because the private guys back the team through me … particularly one guy who is a very good friend of mine.”
Dalton is referring to Swiss-Italian billionaire Matteo de Nora, who has poured millions of his fuel-cell fortune into keeping Team NZ afloat. During the regatta in Portsmouth, Dalton faithfully calls Matteo near the end of both races to give a synopsis of the action.
This is Dalton doing what he does best. During the regatta, a range of VIPs and sponsors, big and small, private and corporate, come through the base, stopping for lunch, a coffee and a spot on a spectator craft.
Dalton works the room with an ease that is so often missing from his other interactions. It might not come naturally to him but he has worked on it to the point that it is second nature. Sponsors, he says, don’t just want branding, they want friendships.
In a rare positive headline recently, Team NZ announced that major sponsor Emirates were doubling down. President Sir Tim Clark and president of group and air services operations Gary Chapman are in attendance.
Chapman is a Papatoetoe boy-made-good, having risen through the ranks at Emirates. He met Dalton while on holiday in New Zealand several years ago. He liked what he saw and managed to get the Team NZ boss in front of the money-men in Dubai, but there was some turbulence to negotiate.
“At one point he said to me: ‘How many f***ing cups of coffee do I have to drink before we get this over the line?’ I told him to drink as many as it takes,” Chapman recalls. “But that’s a Kiwi trait, that impatience – that needing to get things done.
“My wife and I have become quite close to him. He’s as hard as nails on the outside but – and he’ll hate me saying this – he’s jelly on the inside.”
Born in 1957 and raised in Auckland’s eastern suburbs, Dalton’s love of the ocean was nurtured at his grandparents’ holiday home in Maraetai.
Maternal grandfather Stan Niven was an engineer, an inventor and a sailor who was an early member of the Maraetai Beach sailing club and became the greatest influence on Dalton’s life.
Niven’s company, Samuel Parker, which traded from 1935 until dissolution in 1990, led the way in the development of roller doors and aluminium boats. “He was a very, very successful guy.”
Dalton, however, rejects the notion that he grew up on easy street. “I don’t come from that sort of [wealthy] background at all. I’m not coming from the wrong side of the tracks either, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t come from the sort of fabulous background that everyone who doesn’t sail think that those who sail come from.
“I had hand-me-down boats. You always wondered why you weren’t fast enough when you were trying your arse off, but at that age you never understood why – it was because you had a crap boat.”
His grandparents paid for him to attend St Kentigern College. He left school and went to the University of Auckland to study accountancy. He indulged in his non-elaborative “wild years” while developing a passion for racing motorbikes that continues to this day.
It was at his grandparents’ waterfront house that Dalton had an epiphany. He was at the window when Heath’s Condor, with Peter Blake on board, hoved into view as it completed a leg of the 1977 Whitbread Round the World Race.
“It came around North Head with this giant yellow spinnaker and I thought, ‘holy shit’. Right down to where every seagull was sitting I can remember that place in time and I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
He rang his mum, Rose, another huge influence, to tell her he was chucking in his accountancy job that Christmas to do a Fiji race. On his return, he went the tried-and-true method and started sailmaking to broaden his skill base. He got a spot on a round-the-world boat, loved it, and decided to get his own boat for the next one. “And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, basically.”
And here we enter another tricky port-tack in the Dalton story: his skills as a sailor. You do not have to go far to find someone who will denigrate Dalton’s yachtsmanship. Montgomery, who has known Dalton since his early Whitbread days, says the man himself would never confess to “being a rock star round-the-buoys sailor”, and he will correct anybody that claims Dalton won a Whitbread by saying he won the maxi class only.
If you’re expecting Dalton to fire back and list his sailing credentials, you again might be surprised. He says the whole reason he began raising money and formed his own Whitbread teams was because he was never good enough to be hired.
“It was, yeah. The only way I could skipper a boat was to do it myself. To this day I still do that.”
There is a school of thought that Dalton has a chip on his shoulder because Blake got most of the glory. Montgomery, who has a biography coming out soon that addresses his fractious relationship with Dalton, believes the seeds of the hostility were sown because he was perceived to be too close to Blake.
“I never fell out with Dalton; our relationship breakdown all came from him,” he says.
For his part, Dalton says the rivalry with Blake has been overplayed. His closest colleagues, Shoebridge and Rae, sailed with and were very close to Blake, “but we weren’t friends and we weren’t enemies either. You don’t have enemies in the round-the-world race, you just don’t. It doesn’t breed that sort of competition. You can’t even see the bastards most of the time so it’s pretty hard to hate them.”
As for their comparative strengths as skippers, Dalton says neither he nor Blake were great yachtsmen.
“He would never have made a claim to it and neither would I. That’s why I’ve always felt quite honoured to sail with these really good guys,” he says, pointing to the current team. “I’m in awe of them, actually. I’ll be there thinking, ‘How the hell did they see to do that?’ It’s a really strong motivation for me within a team. I love being associated with the skills of these guys.
“I find that massively motivating. That makes me want to work really hard for them.”
SO WE are back to where we started. In Portsmouth, with a new-look team and a two-year battle to win sponsorship and, as importantly, the hearts and minds of New Zealanders before the Auld Mug goes on the line in Bermuda in 2017.
As this adventure begins in earnest, Dalton and the Team NZ board know there are still ghosts of the last campaign to exorcise.
“It’s a cliche, but it just can’t end like that,” Dalton says. “It’s actually true, I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ It’s not making excuses but it was bit of a perfect storm there [in San Francisco]. It still feels like that to this day.”
So Dalton will lead the challenge in Bermuda, even if it’s more of a backroom role. He might not be the martinet, the overbearing overlord I’d imagined, but he still has prickles and he has pride. He knows there are a lot of people who want him fail; a lot of people who want him gone from Team NZ. He’s got a message for them.
“My game is to outlast them. A lot of these people come and they go and you just outlast them … eventually they f*** themselves.”
Dalton’s dark days
Team New Zealand blows an 8-1 lead and eventually loses the America’s Cup regatta 8-9 to Oracle Team USA. It is described as the greatest choke moment in the history of modern sport. Dalton is criticised for agreeing with Oracle to a lay-day and his position on the boat is questioned, with grinder Winston Macfarlane considered a stronger choice.
February: News is “leaked” that Team New Zealand will replace Dean Barker as helmsman with young star Peter Burling, creating a massive fall-out with Barker. Barker says he is “absolutely gutted” at the way he has been treated by Team New Zealand, confirming he heard of his planned axing through the media.
In a column for the Herald, veteran sports broadcaster Murray Deaker says Grant Dalton has to go.
April: The confirmation of the commercial wasteland of Bermuda as the venue for the 2017 event hits Team NZ hard, forcing them to slash $20 million from their budget and undergo an extensive restructure.
May-June: Keith Turner resigns as chairman of the syndicate after just over a year in the post. Design chief Nick Holroyd quits Team New Zealand along with grinders Winston Macfarlane and Derek Saward, and pitman Jeremy Lomas.
The path to Bermuda 2017
America’s Cup World Series
The first regatta was in Portsmouth a fortnight ago. There are two more in 2015 at Gothenburg, Sweden, this month and Bermuda in October. There will be further ACWS regattas next year with dates and venues to be decided. These regattas go towards seedings for the qualifying series.
America’s Cup Qualifying Series
This event was earmarked to be held in Auckland but has since been moved to Bermuda for “cost” reasons. All the challengers and defender Oracle will be at this regatta and will race in their AC48s. The winner of this regatta will take a point into the America’s Cup Match, as long as they win the playoffs.
America’s Cup Playoffs
This is an old-style Louis Vuitton Cup regatta, in Bermuda, between the challengers. Seedings will have been determined in the qualifying series and the winner goes to the America’s Cup match.
America’s Cup Match
Between Oracle and the winner of the playoffs. If Oracle wins the qualifying
series, they go into the match leading 1-0. If the same challenger wins both
the qualifiying series and the playoffs, then they go in, leading 1-0. If a different challenger wins the qualifying series, then the scores will start 0-0.
Dylan Cleaver travelled to Portsmouth courtesy of Team New Zealand.