Report by Pacific Media Centre
The world’s oldest and wealthiest race has an unlikely challenger, an ancient Tongan kalia. An American sailor, resident in Tonga’s Vava’u islands, is convinced he has the fastest boat the world has never seen, reports Emma Jones of Asia-Pacific Journalism.
Tonga’s best chance of proving its modern maritime prowess may come in an America’s Cup challenge being touted by an American immigrant to the country.
Mark Belvedere, owner of Eueiki Eco Resort in the Vava’u Islands, claims the Tongan kalia he is restoring is faster than any America’s Cup boat.
“I have, what I consider, a boat that will blow away anything in the America’s Cup, anything you have in New Zealand.”
Belvedere spent many years studying and teaching Pacific maritime history in Mexico before settling in Tonga. He is so confident of his boat’s abilities that he posted a challenge to the 34th America’s Cup with the support of the then Tongan Tourism Minister, Fineasi Funaki.
Belvedere chose Tonga to live as he believes it was the sailing epicentre for migration of the Polynesian people centuries ago, and he had his heart set on beating the world under-sail speed record.
“I looked for the ultimate platform to break the record, so I developed the same system that was utilised for thousands of years by the Polynesians. I found that throughout their history that they made these great sailing ships that all lean their rig to weather and have totally different load patterns than anybody is using in the world today, the world has a lot to learn by looking at their [Tongan] history of sailing.”
Belvedere believes today’s America’s Cup yacht designers are “over-engineering a dinosaur” with their current multi-hull boats and that the Tongan kalia is the prefect boat built for speed.
“The boat that has them all beat; because it can be built the lightest with all the highest benefits, that is pitching, heeling, riding moments, power to weight to ratios, the things you want to make speed machines, is a Tongan kalia, which was developed by these people thousands of years ago.”
While the late Fineasi Funaki threw his support behind Belvedere’s first America’s cup challenge in 2010, Tourism Tonga have reservations their beloved kalia is able to beat today’s America’s Cup boats.
Tourism Tonga general manager Owen Pau’u, says he’s discussed this idea with Belvedere, but has doubts about the credibility of the claims.
“I’m sure the America’s Cup fraternity have tapped into all the advanced technologies available to ensure their boat is the fastest on a yearly basis, whereas the ‘fastest Kalia’ was built and tested in 2004, so I am sure it is now way outdated.”
With estimates at $40 million plus, Pau’u also acknowledges the cost of launching a bid at the Auld Mug is out of reach of the Tongan government.
“Tonga does not have that amount of money at the moment to spend on the America’s Cup. Tonga has gained the right to host the South Pacific Games in 2019, however the government is still trying to find the funds for SPG 2019.”
The biggest challenge for a Tongan entry in the 2017 cup will be the strict design rules that Larry Ellison has put in place, which Belvedere is adamant were done off the back of his challenge.
“They know what I’ve got is super, super fast. I’m doing three times the wind speed without j-foils in a 26ft boat, you can’t beat that, nobody is doing those speeds.”
He says he knows the challenge was taken seriously by Ellison and any changes put in place were done out of fear.
“They didn’t want to entertain a one on one challenge with me so they put the design rule up instantly, as soon I laid my challenge. It would’ve changed the route of the control of the cup and $10 billion of tourism that it develops, so Ellison wants to control all that.”
With Belvedere keeping the location of the kalia and his testing waters a closely guarded secret, his claims have come up against scepticism by some in the industry.
Auckland yacht designer Brett Bakewell-White says the rules of the Americas Cup would prevent an entry with a Tongan-style vessel.
“The current America’s Cup cycle is using a virtual one-design yacht with solid wing sails and hydrofoils – all teams are forced to use virtually identical yachts. Given that the current AC yachts literally fly above the water on hydrofoils, I would say that there is no chance that a conventional displacement vessel would be even close in speed.”
Belvedere says as a starting point he wants to enter in a Pacific yachting cup, and hopes that New Zealand will get on board, although previous attempts to speak with Emirates Team New Zealand have failed.
“I went down to NZ to talk to Grant [Dalton] but it was in the phase with Barker leaving and the new guy coming in so it wasn’t a good time to talk.”
He acknowledges the expense of launching a Pacific Cup, and had hopes he could piggyback on Team New Zealand’s funding.
“Unfortunately you guys are totally sponsored by Emirates, and Emirates don’t fly here – although they were interested in our airport in Tonga, so the Royal family went to meet Emirates. It didn’t come together because with the timing of Fineasi dying took the wind of the sails.”
Deed of Gift
Funding issues and design rules aside, Belvedere is steadfast in his belief that Tonga should have a boat in the America’s Cup.
“According to the Deed of Gift, the essence of the whole thing [the cup] is about the country, its people, its technology not a design a rule, not a class race. When you get into that it really has to do with an ancient sailing culture and its ability, so Tonga should be allowed.”
“The oldest sailing country in the world should be able to go for the oldest trophy in the world.”
Emma Jones is a student journalist on the Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism reporting on the Asia-Pacific journalism course at AUT University.