CORONADO — What did you say?
They hear it a lot.
Say what again?
The accent. Everybody loves the accent. To American ears, it is a melody, a concerto. That isn't to say it's always easy to understand.
It's part of nearly every conversation.
The Kiwis are back, back for what they hope will be a less tumultuous tour through the waters of the San Diego harbor. Preparation is at full speed for the 1992 America's Cup.
As they did for the Big Boat vs. Catamaran regatta in 1988, New Zealand sailors have chosen Coronado as their home away from home for what promises to be a fatiguing year of testing, sailing and training for the challenger and defender selection trials, which begin in January, 1992.
And Coronado has welcomed them like relatives visiting for the holidays. Mayor Mary Herron will present the team with a key to the city Saturday in a ceremony at Spreckles Park, complete with authentic English tea shipped in from . . . Los Angeles.
Really, since their arrival in early January, the Kiwi sailors have become regular members of the community. Regular, that is, except for the accents. The accents set them apart.
Bob, the security guard who mans the locked fence surrounding the Kiwi shipyard on the island's northeastern shore, spent the first several weeks of December trying decipher New Zealand lingo.
"I went home and told my wife: 'You know something? They speak English, but it's hard to understand what they're saying,' " he said. "Now, I've picked up a lot of things, so it's no problem. But that first week it was hard. I was going around saying: 'Huh, huh.' They were probably saying to themselves: 'Well, this guy must be hard of hearing.' "
At Bula's, a bar and grill on Orange Avenue that achieved local fame for Steinlager swigging sessions in 1988, Kiwi sailors often come in for a bite to eat. Julie Jones, a Bula's waitress, tries to concentrate on every word.
"I have a real hard time with it," she said. "I've learned to get real close to their faces and just listen. And they're trying to talk a little slower."
John Clinton, who heads the sail design team, knows people struggle trying to cut through his accent.
"They don't understand me," he said. "You just have to speak slowly. It can be awkward sometimes if you're talking about numbers. You've got to be careful with numbers. People can get numbers wrong quite easily.
"But as a rule, it's pretty good. One thing Americans are not scared of is asking if they don't understand you."
At 6:45 a.m., with an hour of rigorous exercise staring them in the face, it's easy to miss life in New Zealand.
During six months at home between sail campaigns, Clinton says most of the crew works about three months and takes vacation the other three. Coronado is obviously no stay at Club Med.
Fitness training runs Monday through Friday. The agenda includes running, swimming, aerobics, weight training and, once a week, a game of touch rugby.
"I hate them all," Clinton said. "Saturday morning's the best one."
Saturday morning they don't train.
Everybody on the 45-member New Zealand team is involved, including members of the public relations and office staff and even several of the wives and girlfriends. The idea is to instill a feeling of unity, though no one seems to like the exercise any more than Clinton.
"I can't sit here with a straight face and say it's fun," said Maria Ryan, the New Zealand public relations director. "It's not fun."
Yet it is important. Five-hour sessions on the water can be physically demanding, requiring strength and endurance. In San Diego, it's easier than it was in Australia, where the New Zealand crew trained for America's Cup challenge races in 1986.
Winds in Perth, Australia, averaged between 18 and 22 knots, and there were only 11 crew members on each 65-foot boat. Sixteen crew members are used on the three boats sailing here in San Diego and winds average between 8 and 10 knots. So the workload is lighter.
Still, the fitness program is enough to discourage too many late nights at Bula's. The crew eats dinner at 7:30 and, afterward, Clinton says: "You sort of sit around for half an hour and you probably think about training in the morning and decide to go to bed."
Follow A Avenue in Coronado all the way to the water facing downtown San Diego and you will reach "Kiwinado." There is a sign on the building.
Kiwinado, Pop . 92, Elev . 11 .
It was donated by Steve Lindsey, the owner of Bula's, a man who looks out for the Kiwis and helps them adjust to life in America.
By the way, the population isn't exactly 92. It's more like 70, but Lindsey figures 92 is an appropriate number since the Cup will be held in 1992. And one other thing. Lindsey was told the elevation was 12. He doesn't think it's quite that high. So he listed 11.