SAN FRANCISCO -- Sailing is a national pastime in New Zealand, where moms pack their kids off with sandwiches for a day on the water and dads run the committee boats for the dinghy races. So perhaps no country was more elated when the New Zealand sailing team won the America's Cup for the first time against San Diego's Dennis Conner in 1995 or more devastated when it lost it in a mast-breaking "horror show" in 2003.

Now, the only America's Cup team without a billionaire's backing, and the only team made up almost entirely of native countrymen, is putting its national pride on the line. After months training on the Hauraki Gulf, Emirates Team New Zealand just launched its 72-foot catamaran on the San Francisco Bay.

"We exist to try to bring the America's Cup back to New Zealand," skipper and native son Dean Barker said in a recent interview with this newspaper. The team is funded primarily by the New Zealand government along with an airline and coffee, watch and shoe makers.

"It's really, really hard to commercially fund a team. We're very efficient and have achieved a lot, but how many times can you knock on doors and ask to have another crack at it?" Barker asked. "The only way we can guarantee the future of the team is to be successful in San Francisco."

With just six weeks before the world-renowned regatta begins, the scrappy Kiwis may be the biggest threat to defender Oracle Team USA, owned by billionaire Larry Ellison, who is so wealthy he not only hired some of the best sailors in the world, but he also recently bought himself the Hawaiian island of Lanai.

"We can't outspend them, so we gotta outthink them," said Grant Dalton, managing director of the New Zealand team. "Small armies that are motivated defeat big armies."

New Zealand is an island nation, where none of its 4.4 million inhabitants lives farther than 75 miles from a body of water and nearly one in three own a boat or have access to one. New Zealanders are so enthusiastic for the sport that when the home team crossed the finish line of the Volvo Ocean Race at 2 o'clock one morning, more than 15,000 fans lined the bluffs with flashlights to welcome them home.

In 2007, during the America's Cup in Valencia, Spain, so many Kiwis lined the shores waving small New Zealand flags, the story goes, that defender Alinghi started handing out its own Swiss flags to strangers so it wouldn't look so outnumbered.

"Even people like my mother, who is 91, are avid followers of the America's Cup," said Richard Gladwell, a sailing writer for Sail-World in Auckland. "She gets a little confused about things, but when the race is on she'll be riveted to the TV and talking to her friends about it."

The first win in 1995 was such a spectacle that schoolchildren cut class to join the victory parade along Queen Street in downtown Auckland. At sailing functions even now, grown men aren't properly dressed unless they're wearing red socks, an homage to the "lucky red socks" worn by former team director Sir Peter Blake in his winning campaign. When New Zealand won the cup again in 2000, with Russell Coutts again at the helm, the Kiwis believed their team was so strong that the cup would be theirs for eternity.

But in a crushing emotional blow after the 2000 victory, Coutts left the New Zealand team and signed on with Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli -- and took half the New Zealand crew with him. When Coutts won the cup for the Swiss in 2003, wiping out the Kiwis in five straight races, devastation ran deep. It was New Zealand's version of LeBron James leaving Cleveland.

Dalton, called in to clean up the wreckage of that disastrous campaign, is leading the team now. "I came in to broken hearts and broken dreams," Dalton said.

He estimates his team's budget is half of Oracle's, which has Coutts as its CEO now.

"We've got a philosophy here. You have to prove every dollar will make the boat go faster before you can spend it," Dalton said. "In a big organization, that can often be lost sight of remarkably easily."

And so far, he's proven his boat can go fast -- and stay safe and upright -- key abilities as they face Sweden's Artemis Racing and Italy's Luna Rossa in the Louis Vuitton Cup series that runs through July and August in the bay. The winner will proceed to the America's Cup finals, where the winning team will take on defender Oracle in mid-September. Safety is on everyone's minds after Oracle crashed its first boat last fall and Artemis capsized its 72-foot catamaran May 9, killing crewman Andrew "Bart" Simpson.

Last winter, with winds blowing nearly 50 mph in the Hauraki Gulf, the New Zealand boat "was unbelievable," Barker said, as it zigzagged downwind.

"We got back," said Dalton, who was also aboard, "but there wasn't anybody unhappy to put the thing back in the shed. ... That's for sure."

As much as the America's Cup is about the fastest boats and the best sailors, it's about gamesmanship as well. And the Kiwis aren't folding on that front, either.

"This is the America's Cup," Dalton said. "You have to keep your wits about you, and three eyes over your shoulder and behind your back."

And also on the trophy.

There's not a Kiwi sailor who isn't imagining another parade down Queen Street, or without a pair of red socks in his drawer.

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.