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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - 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 getting 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, a lead so large that the Italian boat was officially deemed not to have completed the race even though it crossed the finish line.
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. Ellison, who won the cup in 2010, and with it the right to set the rules for this year's races, hoped to make the 162-year-old competition more accessible to everyday sports fans with super-fast, high-tech 72-foot boats sailing close to shore on the picturesque Bay.
But the regatta stumbled from the start, with high costs scaring off many challengers and a fatal training accident in May throwing the four-team competition into chaos. A convoluted fight over new safety rules may leave Sweden's Artemis Racing, funded by businessman Torbjörn Törnqvist, unable to participate.
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.
New Zealand boat builders were among the first to work with the high-strength composite materials that are now standard for racing boats. They made a name for themselves as some of the world's top designers, said Tim Smyth, a construction manager at the Oracle team's boat-building arm, Core Builders Composites, which built Oracle's two AC72 catamarans.
In New Zealand, Core Builders Composites also built 15 smaller AC45 catamarans that teams raced over the past two years to prepare for the America's Cup.
New Zealand's government has kicked in around $30 million for this year's Cup campaign. The team also helped finance its Cup bid by selling a boat design to Luna Rossa, while corporate sponsors, led by Emirates Airlines, contributed the balance of a budget estimated at around $100 million.
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, where strong youth programs pick out potential stars at an early age and nurture them.
"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.
In this year's America's Cup, over a dozen Kiwis fill out the crews of Team New Zealand's rivals and many more play vital roles as designers, builders and trainers. Oracle Team USA is run by a New Zealander.
The Kiwis successfully defended the Cup in 2000, further bolstering their credentials on the world sailing stage and solidifying support from New Zealanders that the team still enjoys.
But just weeks later, then-skipper Russell Coutts and other key crewmen were hired away to sail for Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi, earning the bitter resentment of many at home.
At the America's Cup in Auckland in 2003, Alinghi trounced what was left of the New Zealand team, which suffered a disastrous broken mast and the near-sinking of its yacht.
Dalton, who made his name in the 1980s in extreme round-the-world races, was hired to pick up the pieces.
"Dalton was the gruff master sergeant called in to teach the fuzzy-faced second lieutenants how to take the hill," said Kimball Livingston, a competitive sailor and writer at blueplanettimes.com.
Dalton, who worked as a motorcycle mechanic before going to university to study accounting, is known for his toughness. "His idea of a good time is to be dropped into some inhospitable part of the world with a book of matches and a jackknife, and he'd come out the other side," said Hawley.
Since 2003, Dalton has been the public face of his team, overseeing boat design and construction, hiring its crew and squeezing money from sponsors.
In 2007, Dalton and his crew came close to regaining the Cup but lost again to defender Alinghi in a seven-race showdown. Coutts subsequently defected to Oracle, which then beat Alinghi in a controversial 2010 challenge that introduced ultra-fast, multi-hulled yachts to the competition.
Dalton has been outspoken about the failings of this year's America's Cup, criticizing the AC72s designed by Oracle as a bad choice for San Francisco Bay's heavy winds and rip currents.
Team New Zealand is still living off the goodwill from the 1995 and 2000 wins, Dalton told Reuters. "Although it's getting chipped and reduced by the day, we're still in credit. But credit will ultimately turn to debit if these shenanigans keep going."
If New Zealand wins the Cup, Dalton said he will use the defender's right to set rules to force teams in the next America's Cup to use sailors from their home countries, which would swing the odds considerably in New Zealand's favor. Such a nationality rule existed from 1980 to 2003 and for decades before that there was a tradition of boats, crews and designers being from the same country.
The only thing Dalton doesn't skipper on Team New Zealand is the boat itself, a responsibility he has given to the much younger Dean Barker. Instead, Dalton helps operate the pedestal grinders that control the hard "wing" sails, the dagger-boards and other moveable hardware on the boat. It is a grueling job that requires arm-strength and endurance to spin big drum winches under heavy load, as well as light-footed scampering across the mesh that serves as the catamaran's deck.
Coutts, one of New Zealand's most heralded sailors, has won four America's Cups in his career as a skipper. Now that he is running Oracle's defense, he is seen as one of Team New Zealand's main hurdles to regaining the trophy in September.
Reporting by Noel Randewich, additional reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Alden Bentley