Last night, former friends and foes reunited to celebrate a common passion. In the manner of all reunions, this one carried its own special mix of reminiscing, camaraderie, good times shared, arguments revisited, triumphs and losses relived.
It was a night of champions celebrating an extraordinary two decades of Louis Vuitton's involvement with yachting's premier regatta.
Past Winners - ©Frank Socha/Louis Vuitton
And, as the titans of the sport gathered for a reunion dinner in Auckland, time was peeled back and the events that drove this gathering to great achievement were re-examined. For a few magic hours, friends and foes forgot about the creeping ravages of age - not even champions are exempt from expanding waistlines and receding hairlines - to journey back to the moments that united them all in a grand passion for the America's Cup.
In 1983, the French luxury goods company, Louis Vuitton Malletier, entered the Cup arena by backing the Challenger Selection series for the first time. "To win the America's Cup, first win the Louis Vuitton Cup" was the call to arms. To some, this seemed a hollow threat. For 132 years, the New York Yacht Club had resisted all efforts to remove the America's Cup from its trophy collection.
Yet, who could forget that extraordinary campaign off Newport, Rhode Island, as Australia II, with its winged keel, won the first Louis Vuitton Cup? Having cleared that hurdle, the Australians waged war on and off the water, ultimately coming from behind to defeat Liberty 4-3 to capture the America's Cup. The Louis Vuitton call to arms was fulfilled at its first attempt and the longest winning streak in sporting history was broken.
Twenty years later, in Auckland, the Swiss Alinghi team sailed into the history books as the sixth winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup, its skipper, Russell Coutts, becoming the first two-time winner of the coveted trophy.
In the intervening 20 years, legends have been woven and most of the players who featured large were gathered to salute the landmark occasion. The guests of honour included:
· 1983 -- winners, property magnate Alan Bond and skipper John Bertrand;
· 1987 -- finalist Sir Michael Fay (whose New Zealand Challenge was also a finalist in 1992) and winners Dennis "Mr America's Cup" Conner and his long-time friend and tactician, Tom Whidden (Stars & Stripes);
· 1995 -- winner Russell Coutts (Team New Zealand);
· 2000 -- winner Francesco de Angelis (Prada);
· 2003 -- winners, pharmaceuticals billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and Russell Coutts (Alinghi).
Tragedy made absentees of some notable figures. Raul Gardini, whose Il Moro di Venezia syndicate won the Louis Vuitton Cup in 1992, later took his own life as business problems descended around him. His skipper, Paul Cayard, could not attend because of a recent death in the family. Tactician Tommaso Chieffi represented the Il Moro team.
And, Sir Peter Blake, who guided Team New Zealand to victory in 1995 and the first successful non-US defence of the America's Cup in 2000, was murdered on an environmental mission to the Amazon River in 2001.
Host for the night, Louis Vuitton chairman Yves Carcelle, noted: "A lot of legends dry up and become something of the past. We are part of a living legend. Edition after edition of the Louis Vuitton Cup, it grows bigger."
Greeting his guests, he said: "You are the main actors. You have written the pages of glory, pain, passion and beauty..."
Bruno Troublé, who first introduced Louis Vuitton to the world of the America's Cup and has become maestro of its enormous media operation ever since, recalled how the seeds were sewn as far back as 1968. That was when ballpoint pen entrepreneur Baron Bich had his attempt to challenge for the America's Cup rejected by the New York Yacht Club because they had already accepted the Gretel challenge from Australia.
Bich lobbied for a multi-team challenger selection series and got his way for the 1970 regatta. Troublé, who helmed for Bich, recalled how the mercurial baron, immaculately dressed in his white jacket with gold buttons, would peel oranges for him during racing and clean his sunglasses. But, while the image might be debonair and mildly eccentric, Troublé suggested that it was the baron's efforts at organising the challengers into a proper regatta of their own that ultimately led to Australia's victory in 1983.
"That was the most marvellous event,"
recalled veteran yachting journalist Bob Fisher. While miniskirts were the fashion rage, Alan Bond reintroduced skirts to the America's Cup to hide his winged keel.
"Alan went on to defeat the New York Yacht Club for the first time in 132 years and when the skirt was lifted, people were gobsmacked to see the keel that had given the NYYC so much grief,"
"Then, it was g'day from WA,"
noted Cup broadcaster Peter Montgomery, as he described the 1987 series in Fremantle, Western Australia: cloudless skies, endless hot days, spectacular sailing and a record fleet.
"If Bond and Bertrand had not won the America's Cup, it would not have been in Auckland right now,"
Montgomery said. "That's because trans-Tasman rivalry meant New Zealand was bound to have a go. Enter Sir Michael Fay and the world's first fibre-glass yachts."
Yves Carcell presents gift to John Bertrand - © Frank Socha/Louis Vuitton
As Sir Michael shared a dining table with Dennis Conner, recollections inevitably went to Conner's attacks on the "plastic fantastic" Kiwi yachts: "Why would you build a glass 12-Metre yacht unless you wanted to cheat?"
To roars of laughter, Conner remained unrepentant, saying he still hadn't had an answer to his question.
Sir Michael's memorable battles with Raul Gardini over the bowsprit on NZL-20 also came under the spotlight as the 1992 regatta was relived. During one of the endless late-night protests, Gardini insulted Sir Michael and Troublé was caught in the repercussions later when Il Moro di Venezia came from behind to win the Louis Vuitton Cup 5-3. Before the prize-giving could take place, Sir Michael demanded an apology from Gardini. No apology, no prize-giving.
Troublé had to call on all his diplomatic skills to coax the required statement from Gardini - and the show went on.
The 1995 regatta was memorable for the sinking of OneAustralia, but that was not the first time in that series that John Bertrand got wet. Fisher reminded the gathering that on February 2, Bertrand actually fell off the boat in the middle of a race, but managed to grab a trailing sheet and haul himself back on board.
It was during that series that Sir Peter Blake's red socks became a national icon in New Zealand, with thousands of Kiwis donning scarlet replicas in support of the Black Magic yachts.
On into the night, the highlights of Louis Vuitton Cup history were fondly remembered. Francesco de Angelis's fierce battles with Paul "hold your proper course"
Cayard in Auckland, with Prada having to go to nine races to clinch the title. And, fresh in everybody's minds, the regatta just finished with Alinghi pitted against Chris Dickson, who has won more Louis Vuitton races than any other skipper.
As each story was told, the winning Louis Vuitton skipper was presented with a limited edition Louis Vuitton chronometer to mark the occasion. Style, of course, plays an enormous role in all Louis Vuitton's endeavours, so master chef Pascal Tingaud was flown in from France to prepare a fine repast, accompanied by the appropriate Moët & Chandon champagnes and music by Kiwi tenor Shaun Dixon.
Then, as the evening drew to its close, the night of champions reached a crescendo with a fabulous fireworks display over Auckland's WaitemataHarbour. As America's Cup 2003 looms, the big question relates to the future. Will New Zealand defend again - thus bringing the Louis Vuitton community back for a third regatta on the Hauraki Gulf? Or, will the caravan depart to a new chapter elsewhere?
Only time will tell, but whatever its destiny, Louis Vuitton looks set to remain a major player. Describing the 20th anniversary dinner as a "family meeting"
, Yves Carcelle expressed the hope that the same group would regather 20 years on to celebrate 40 years of the Louis Vuitton Cup.
But John Bertrand set a more ambitious agenda. "Louis Vuitton has been fundamental in raising the game,"
he said. "What we see now is the result of the stability we have seen since 1983 onwards."
Casting his mind back 20 years ago, Bertrand said the then-chairman of Louis Vuitton had talked of remaining with the event for the next century.
The year 2083 is some way off yet, but clearly the ghosts of the current generation will be looking on with keen interest to ensure that the Louis Vuitton Cup legend lives on at least that long.