Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesOracle Team USA skippered by James Spithill in action against Emirates Team New Zealand in race 17 of the America's Cup Finals on September 24

Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesOracle Team USA skippered by James Spithill in action against Emirates Team New Zealand in race 17 of the America's Cup Finals on September 24

New Zealand has a lot riding on America's Cup

Fifty-six-year-old Grant Dalton's daily routine includes strapping on a helmet, a wetsuit and a belt full of emergency gear to work as a lowly “grinder” on the New Zealand catamaran competing in this year's America's Cup sailing regatta.

Cranking the big winches is an intensely physical job normally left to brawny men at least two decades his junior. The wiry, tart-tongued Dalton is also the managing director of Emirates Team New Zealand. Through these positions he imparts a blue-collar streak to a blue-blooded sport, making him a fitting symbol for the only Cup challenger that isn't bankrolled by a billionaire.

With competitive sailing in the 34th America's Cup under way on San Francisco Bay, New Zealand already stands out as the most polished of the three teams that hope to pry the trophy away from software mogul Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA. The “Kiwis” routed Prada fashion tycoon Patrizio Bertelli's Luna Rossa Challenge in their first race by more than five minutes.

For Dalton, and for New Zealand's fervent sailing fans, there's a lot riding on the team's performance.

In an international competition where money buys top talent from around the world, New Zealand's is the only boat crewed almost entirely by nationals.

Only New Zealand has a home-grown grown industry devoted to designing and building advanced carbon-fiber boats of the type being used in the Cup.

And only New Zealand, whose winning Cup campaign two decades ago touched off a national celebration, is backed by its government and risks losing that support if it fails this year.

“I don't think the team will survive if we don't win,” said New Zealand tactician Ray Davies. “It's fantastic that the government puts the money in, but they're expecting us to win and they're not going to back a team that doesn't win.”

In most countries, sailboat racing is a niche sport, and this year's America's Cup so far has done little to change that.

In New Zealand, though, the Cup looms large. Much of country lives near the coast. Sailing is a popular pastime, and the country boasts a hard-core nautical culture that has made its sailors and boat builders a major force in yachting.

When New Zealand first won the cup in 1995, with a yacht nicknamed Black Magic, hundreds of thousands of people crowded the streets of Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch for ticker tape parades. It was only the second time the America's Cup had been taken from an American team since its start in 1851.

Chuck Hawley, who has crossed the Atlantic in a catamaran and is heavily involved in promoting the sport in the United States, compared the fervor for sailing in New Zealand to baseball in Dominican Republic.

“It's a passion in New Zealand, so is our rugby, so is beer drinking. It's up there with them,” said Team New Zealand trustee Gary Paykel.

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