Doing what I love doing
Matthew Mason is one of New Zealand’s most experienced America’s Cup sailors. Professional yachting, dominated by the America’s Cup – has been his career for 25 years. His story is an interesting one. The Bayswater resident has been involved in six campaigns for the Auld Mug, winning it no fewer than three times. Channel Magazine’s, Aidan Bennett had a chat with him in Takapuna in mid-March about his career and the interesting role he now enjoys with ORACLE Racing-Team USA, current holders of the Cup.
Most of you will not have heard a great deal about Matthew Mason. But he is one of New Zealand’s most seasoned and successful yachties and a real good bloke, who has called the North Shore home for over a decade. Matthew lives at Bayswater with his wife of 10 years Jodine (nee Appleton) and their three children Emma (eight), Lucy (six) and William (three).
“I love living on the Shore, especially because of all the beaches that are on offer around Takapuna, Devonport and the Bays,” said Matthew, when quizzed about why he loves the area so much. “It is a great area for family life, lots of space to run, walk, paddle and swim. We are spoilt to be able to take part in events, such as the State Beach Series every week, something our whole family does – I paddle, Jodine swims and the kids run or swim. I lived over in the city for a few years but just love it here, because we are still close, but far enough away to be out of the rat race and it is more laid back.”
Matthew Mason was born and bred in Whangarei. He first started sailing in a P-Class at age seven at the Onerahi Yacht Club. He loved the sport and it has been part of his life ever since.
His love of all things nautical led him to do a boat-building apprenticeship, which he started in Whangarei and finished when he first moved to Greenhithe, Auckland with Salthouse Marine Ltd. In Auckland, he started sailing keelers and he became part of the regular crew for leading Kiwi sailor Graeme Woodroffe. The delivery of a boat for ‘Woody’ to Sydney, resulted in Mason spending the next three years living in Australia, where he continued to build a strong reputation as a sailor while crewing for wealthy Australian media man and sailor Rod Muir.
During this period Mason did a lot of sailing on maxis, he did the Admiral’s Cup, he was a regular on the Grand-prix circuit and the Match Racing Tour, and he eventually ended up in San Diego in 1992 for a trial with the New Zealand Challenge. This was his first contact with America’s Cup sailing. Matthew also sailed in the 1993-94 Whitbread Round the World Race with the infamous Dennis Conner on Winston.
“I was lucky to be chosen for the New Zealand Challenge in 1992 and to be part of the Sir Michael Fay challenge in the distinctively red ‘NZL 20’, which will forever be remembered as the bowsprit challenge,” said Matthew. “We got through to the finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup against Paul Cayard’s Il Moro di Venezia. We were leading four-one in the series, until a protest against the innovative bowsprit resulted in us being penalised one race win and having to remove the bowsprit. History will remember that we ended up losing the series five to three and never got to challenge for the Cup. It was a disappointing time, but really gave me a taste for the Cup and I wanted more.”
Matthew didn’t have to wait too long for revenge. When New Zealand Challenge morphed into Team New Zealand he was an important part of the Sir Peter Blake-led team that made history by winning the America’s Cup for New Zealand in 1995, and also helped to defend it back in New Zealand in 2000.
“It was a very special period in my life, and I will always look back on that time with fond memories,” adds Matthew. “The whole country was behind us and we were on top of the world.”
History will also record that it didn’t take too long for the successful Team New Zealand formula to self-destruct before the Nation’s eyes, as it all fell apart with the departure of many of the team members to other syndicates.
“It was a tough time for all of us when the team disintegrated,” reflected Matthew Mason when quizzed on what happened. “There needed to be a change from the old guard to the new guard, but it all got messy. Seven months after the successful defence, there was still no certainty for any of the sailing team so people got restless and moved on. It was very sad the way it all happened.”
This opened another chapter in Matthew Mason’s distinguished sailing career. He opted to join the Craig McCaw owned OneWorld 2003 America’s Cup campaign that was based out of Seattle. This meant he was sailing for a United States team.
“We had a great time in Seattle, and there were a few other Kiwis to keep me company, including Don Cowie. Seattle is a nice city, and we had a pretty good team led by Australian helmsmen Peter Gilmour and James Spithill. Unfortunately, we were not there at the business end of the regatta and in hindsight maybe the wrong person was steering the boat. We also lacked boat speed.”
As it is well documented, the Swiss challenge Alinghi – with Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth leading the sailing team – won that 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland, and the whole event moved to Valencia in Spain for the 2007 contest. Matthew Mason went back to Team New Zealand for the 32nd America’s Cup contest in 2007.
“It was a thrill to be sailing again for New Zealand in Valencia, and we had a fantastic campaign that took us right through to the final, challenging Alinghi. But unfortunately Alinghi proved to be that little bit quicker, not much fell in our favour, and they still had Brad and many other Kiwis. But we went very close.”
After the 2007 event, Matthew was asked to join the BMW Oracle Racing team that Russell Coutts had moved to run for Larry Ellison. He has been with them ever since. It was a wise move as he was once again on the podium as an America’s Cup winner when Coutts and BMW ORACLE Racing took the Auld Mug from Alinghi, an event that was contested in 90 foot multihulls, following extensive court action and litigation.
“I was not necessarily going to be on the sailing team when I first joined ORACLE Racing,” explained Matthew. “My background in boat building and the experience I had, being involved with design and preparing boats for six Cup campaigns, meant that I offered Russell and BMW Oracle Racing value for their ambitious project, to build the 90-foot (27 metre) trimaran for the Valencia challenge. But after being in San Diego for a couple of months, I started sailing and I progressed to being on the final crew.”
Since that win in February 2010, Matthew Mason has remained a key member of the ORACLE Racing organisation. For him, the exciting aspect of his current role is that New Zealand is playing a big part in their preparation for the 34th America’s Cup, to be sailed in San Francisco in 72-foot wing-sail catamarans. This has meant being able to live predominantly at home here on the North Shore, while making regular trips to the ORACLE Racing base in San Francisco.
“What many New Zealanders don’t know is that ORACLE Racing set up a facility at Warkworth called Core Builders Composites in 2010, shortly after we won the Cup,” says Matthew. “This is one half of the official boat-building facility for ORACLE Racing, the other being in San Francisco. It is in the building that was previously part of Times Colour Print and the Rodney Times. Core Builders Composites, led by Tim Smyth and Mark Turner, has actually been around for a while as they have built every America’s Cup yacht for the team since 2001, including the 90 foot trimaran.”
The key components at the Warkworth facility – that looks more like a spaceship manufacturing plant – are the two CNC milling machines which are the largest five-axis milling machines in New Zealand. These are high-tech machines that enable these state-of-the-art yachts and their components to be made with great precision.
Matthew Mason has been working closely with the Core Builders Composites team. “When ORACLE Racing was planning the 34th America’s Cup for 2013, it was decided that it would be raced in 72-foot wing-sail catamarans. The dilemma was that all of the competing teams needed to practice in catamarans, so the decision was made to build smaller 45-foot (AC45) wing-sail catamarans that teams could purchase. Core Builders Composites built all 15 of these at Warkworth between 2010 and early 2012. This has been great for the local economy.”
America’s Cup rules state that the hulls of the actual boats must be built in the home country of the team, but significant structures for 72-foot catamaran including the 40 metre wingsails are being built at Warkworth.
So does Matthew Mason like sailing multihulls, as opposed to the monohulls that have been the dominant part of his sailing life?
“They are certainly fast, action-packed and exciting for those watching, which is really the major reason for the change. Russell’s (Coutts) reasoning is that they will make the sport more appealing to watch live and as a television spectacle. They do 35 knots effortlessly. An example of their impact is when we capsized in the San Francisco Bay. The footage went via news and YouTube right around the world. I believe it still is the biggest ever viewed YouTube yachting clip of all time, with almost two million hits.”
Is Sir Russell Coutts a good bloke?
“He’s the boss so I have to be careful (laughs). Yes, he is certainly the man. History shows that there is no better sailor. He is an Olympic gold medalist, as well as an America’s Cup winner, and has won many other titles. All this, combined with being an engineer, means that he has unbelievable design vision as well. He is also a very good leader who can delegate and he lets people get on with things without micro-managing. Russell is also a great deal of fun to be around – he enjoys himself – but he hates being beaten at golf (laughs).”
How about Larry (Ellison – Oracle owner)?
“He obviously sailed on the 90-footer when we won the Cup in Valencia. He’s a good bloke and loves his yachting immensely, which is why he is involved in the America’s Cup.”
So what does the future hold for Matthew Mason?
“I am contracted through until after the 2013 event with ORACLE Racing, and am keen to be involved on the sailing team for the event. But this will depend on being good enough to make the final 11. The boats are physically demanding and I am not getting any younger. But I think I will be OK. I’d love to stay involved even beyond 2013, as this is my career, I love it, and I now have a great deal of experience in both preparing campaigns and sailing.”
To finish the interview I asked Matthew Mason about a few of his favourites…
Favourite food: Japanese, sushi/sashimi.
Likes to drink: Frosty cold beer.
Restaurant: Changes a bit, but probably Al Forno Italian in Takapuna
for dinner, and Jam Cafe for brunch. I also enjoy a drink or a meal at
Read: Not a big reader, but when I do usually autobiographies.
Best country visited: Sardinia and Corsica, Italy.
Holiday spot in New Zealand: Bay of Islands and anywhere on the water up North.
When you’re not sailing, you like to: Spend time with my family, Stand Up Paddle, golf, sail my 1 metre model yacht and go to the gym at Les Mills in Takapuna.
Next time I’m going to come back as: The same. A yachtie. I wouldn’t change a thing. I am so lucky because I am doing what I love doing.