The Megayacht-Racing Billionaires Invading New Zealand in the Guise of ‘Essential Workers’
COVID-free New Zealand is off limits to the world—unless you’re one of the billionaires behind the teams racing in this year’s America’s Cup, welcomed in as “essential workers.”
In case you weren’t aware, a select club of billionaires from around the world—with their superyachts in tow—have descended upon Waitematā Harbour in Auckland, New Zealand to resume one of their favorite activities: watching a bunch of guys race big, fast boats back and forth across an invisible line. It’s a bit like NASCAR for rich people.
These billionaire owners were lucky enough to receive special “essential service worker exemptions” to travel to New Zealand, after being deemed “essential” by the government to spend their millions in the local economy in exchange for the opportunity to forget about social distancing, breathe in the coronavirus-free air, and enjoy watching their million-dollar yachts race each other for an old, shiny trophy known as the Auld Mug. While everyday workers have had to endure drastic change and hardship and have been denied even the most basic relief during the pandemic, billionaires are still fighting to carry on their extremely costly globe-trotting hobbies.
This is all part of a quadrennial sporting event known to most New Zealanders and other sailing fanatics as the America’s Cup; its 36th edition started March 10, after its weekend opening was postponed due to an Alert Level 3 coronavirus lockdown in Auckland.
The defending champions, Emirates Team New Zealand, is backed by reclusive Swiss-Italian billionaire Matteo de Nora. They will face off against the challengers, Italian team Luna Rossa, owned by Italian billionaire Patrizio Bertelli of Prada Group.
The Italians beat out Ineos Team UK, owned by British billionaire and industrialist Jim Ratcliffe, in the Prada Cup finals. That was a week after they swept New York Yacht Club’s American Magic, a team sponsored and partially owned by ex-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ billionaire brother-in-law Doug, his fellow billionaire Roger Penske, and businessman John “Hap” Fauth, with four straight wins in the Prada Cup semi-finals. And let’s not forget how Team NZ got here in the first place: by defeating Oracle Team USA, backed by American billionaire and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, in 2017. (The event is held every few years.) If you sense a pattern emerging here about the people behind this competition, you’re entirely correct.
The America’s Cup (named after the very first boat, America, to win the competition), doesn’t just boast the world’s oldest international sporting trophy, it’s notoriously loved by the wealthiest people in the world. Historically, it has attracted multiple generations of Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan, CNN founder Ted Turner and more recently, Bill Koch of the Koch brothers.
The goal of the game is simple: get past the finish line first. But the rules can be complex. Yachts race one-on-one on a three-kilometer-long course, sailing upwind around the first checkpoint, then downwind past the starting line towards a second checkpoint, and then again towards the first. This process is repeated for a number of laps set by race officials according to the strength of the wind. Sailing outside the set boundaries of the course or infringing on an opponent that has the right of way incurs distance penalties. Each win is one point for that team. The first team to reach 7 points wins the Auld Mug.
From 1851 to 1980, there wasn’t much “competition” in the America’s Cup, with the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) winning the very first regatta and successfully fending off every challenge for a century. That is, until they lost to Australia’s Royal Perth Yacht Club in 1983. Almost 30 years after that loss, the NYYC came back to stake its claim in this year’s race.
But the Americans’ hopes of reclaiming the America’s Cup this year were quickly and unceremoniously dashed. The NYYC’s American Magic team were slated to be the favorites to win the Prada Cup and challenge the defenders. Skippered by Terry Hutchinson and helmed by New Zealander Dean Barker, a former skipper for Team New Zealand, the Americans hoped to make a comeback and bring the Auld Mug back to its former home. Instead, after two disappointing round robins and a dramatic capsize that left catastrophic—and catastrophically expensive—damage on their boat, the Patriot, the Americans continued to underperform, losing every race against Luna Rossa.
There was titillating suspense over whether Patriot would be repaired in time for the semi-final races. It showed how the America’s Cup has become much more than just a regatta; it is now an extensive technological journey of boat-building requiring insanely wealthy backers. American Magic spent as much as $120 million on its campaign and the development of its racing yachts—that’s more than the Auckland City Council budgeted to host the entire event.
The types of boats in the final race are determined by the defending champions, usually to their advantage and preferred style of racing. This year’s competition, picked by Team New Zealand, relies on the AC75 design, meaning the boats are built with a 75-foot-long monohull, no keel, and two swiveling foils (they look a bit like tiny legs or wings and provide lift to the hull).
Each team is allowed to have two boats and each one can cost as much as $8 to $10 million to construct. It must be ultra-lightweight: Minus the sails and crew, the boat can’t weigh more than 6,520 kilograms, while a regular 75-foot yacht usually weighs up to 10 times that amount. These are racing boats designed to fly across—and sometimes literally over—the water at speeds as high as 50 knots. Designing such a boat requires immense resources. The Italians’ AC75 Luna Rossa, for instance, took 78,000 hours (almost two years) to build with a team of 90 people, including 37 team designers. As Jeff Foss put it in Outside magazine, “Yes, it’s a boat race, but calling these things ‘boats’ is like calling Elon Musk’s Hyperloop a choo-choo train.”
It’s interesting that, in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, as other large sporting events like the Olympics have been postponed, the America’s Cup has gone on relatively unscathed.
Part of that is owed to how New Zealand acted early and decisively to stop the spread of the coronavirus. With a population of just under 5 million, New Zealand has had 2,409 COVID-19 cases and 26 total deaths; it has remained at Alert Level 1 for most of the pandemic.
The three challengers for the Auld Mug, on the other hand, come from the three Western nations with the highest numbers of coronavirus deaths: the U.S., Italy, and the U.K. Were the teams not sponsored by billionaires displaying their wealth for sport, they would not be allowed into the country at all.
There’s something ugly in the stark class divides that allow the wealthy to travel easily to a place that is perhaps the closest thing this earth has to paradise (I was born in New Zealand—I’m biased). Most people can’t afford to escape their pandemic suffering and spend fortunes on hi-tech doomsday bunkers or quarantine from inside their megayachts.
That apparently doesn’t matter to certain New Zealand government officials, who seem to consider the sporting event (and the money that drives it) a cultural necessity. “The America’s Cup would not be able to go ahead unless these international syndicate teams are allowed entry into New Zealand,” New Zealand’s Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford offered by way of explanation in June 2020 before granting exemptions to the billionaire teams behind the challengers.
Meanwhile, a loophole stemming from that policy allowed superyachts access to New Zealand waters so long as their crews quarantined inside the yacht for a minimum of 14 days and owners spent a minimum amount—as much as $7 million NZD in one case—on boat repairs. Businesses began lobbying for their billionaire owners to be allowed to enter New Zealand with their superyachts, too. But so far, none of them seem to have made it in.
Other billionaire backers of the America’s Cup like Valve owner Gabe Newell have even “temporarily relocated” to New Zealand during the pandemic. In Newell’s case, he was stranded there on holiday and decided to stay, likely to escape the U.S.’s restrictive lockdowns and seemingly never-ending virus surges.
It’s part of a longer trend that has made New Zealand into a rich person’s playground, most notably starting with Silicon Valley entrepreneur and billionaire Peter Thiel, who was granted citizenship in 2011 under “exceptional circumstances” after spending just 12 days there over the course of 5 years. American hedge fund billionaire John Griffin is another who fled New York for New Zealand via private jet right before lockdown, while American hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson was found to have taken over $1 million NZD in government subsidies to pay staff wages at his luxury resorts. Sure, New Zealand might be closed off to the world, but what’s stopping other billionaires from getting residency or citizenship under “exceptional circumstances”?
For many Americans, it’s a slap in the face to watch members of the DeVos family frolic over to New Zealand, happily masked up and “quarantined.” Their home state of Michigan suffered heavily during the pandemic, with anti-maskers refusing to cooperate with state lockdowns (while actually trying to kidnap the governor at one point), and members of the DeVos family refusing to publicly support mask and quarantine measures that would have helped quell the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
We’ve seen time and time again how billionaires make and break the rules, often at our expense. We’ve seen how they greedily took PPP loans meant for small businesses or abandoned their pandemic-stricken cities for private island getaways just because they could. New Zealand took the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and succeeded—yet it’s still the world’s billionaires who get to bask in that benefit. Because God forbid they don’t get to race their boats.