America’s Cup Racing, New Zealand: This Ain’t the Caribbean, Mate

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Sailing an America's Cup racing yacht off Auckland
Sailing an America’s Cup racing yacht off Auckland

Within 30 hours of arriving in New Zealand, I’ve crossed the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland twice: once in a sleek America’s Cup sailboat; the other aboard a superyacht. During that time, I heard repeatedly that Auckland is home to the highest number of boats per capita in the world.

Upon relaying this information during dinner to Kevin Bowler, chief executive of Tourism New Zealand, he laughs, “Well, there haven’t actually been any scientific studies done on the subject. But it’s probably true, you know. It makes sense, everyone in Auckland has, or knows someone who has, some type of boat.”

The Mercer Report annual list of the world’s most liveable cities came out last week. Auckland placed #3. This could be the world’s greenest city of 1.4 million people, vastly larger than typical for a city this size due to all of the trees and parkland. Much of this is because everyone wants to be close to the sea, and they’re willing to head into the hinterlands to have quick access to it.

Hauraki Gulf, Auckland
Hauraki Gulf, Auckland

SAILING, SOAKED + SMILING
It’s just plain nasty as we head out into the bay aboard one of the 80-foot America’s Cup vessels operated by ExploreNZ, originally used as a prepatory boat for the Kiwi race team at the 2007 Valencia contest. The rain is a steady sheet and everyone’s pants are soaked through within 10 minutes. There’s a good wind too, racking the boat over at 45 degrees at a brisk 12 knots on a close tack sailing upwind toward open sea. When you’re slicing through the water like this while trying to maintain a steady foothold, the adrenaline makes you actually relish the conditions when you find your sea legs as the craft responds to the earth’s prodigious forces.

Of the 30 of us aboard, little children and their parents are manning the winches to trim the sails upon each subsequent tack. The mainsail wasn’t raised completely in order to spill some of the wind, so the folds at the bottom act like a funnel, at times delivering a bathtub’s worth of water on the head of one 7 year-old. She couldn’t have looked happier.

americas cup racing
americas cup racing

We’re here as tourists without a lot of options to reschedule a sail across the bay on a more agreeable day. Which makes it surprising, to me anyway, that many of the locals thought the conditions were perfectly acceptable for a leisurely day at sea. Dozens of boats pass by us in the grey haze while couples sip chardonnay and slice camembert under protective canopies, oblivious to the slanting rain.

As we tack quickly back and forth, everyone crosses from one gunwhale to the other while the boat sits at even keel during the few seconds it faces directly into the wind. In the slippery conditions, some lose their balance teetering toward the water before any number of people grab them and hoist them up to the high side.

On the return leg, the skipper asks for volunteers to take the helm. It’s a bit of a thrill really. These multi-million boats have some serious get-up-and-go in them, and you can feel the taught, responsive nature of the hull itching to lean over on a hard tack to take off across the Gulf.

The two ExploreNZ vessels are often used in unison for the SailNZ America’s Cup Match Racing event. Pitting up to 30 pax per boat against each other in race-like conditions, the professional crew and participants work together to round the buoys while the skipper explains race strategy and wind/boat dynamics.

“Do you guys race when the sea turns to slop like today?” I ask one of the crew.

“We’ll race any day, we’re used to getting a little wet,” he says. “This ain’t the Caribbean, mate.”

For planners with larger groups, ExploreNZ combines the America’s Cup event with a Whale & Dolphin Safari. Motoring out to the nearby Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, the boats typically encounter dolphins over 90% of the time; sperm whales over 75% of sailings year-round.

FAST + FURIOUS
The crew was excellent taking time to talk about the America’s Cup boats. Many years ago, I participated in a similar event in St. Martin aboard a “12 Metre,” which back then was the standard America’s Cup racing yacht. This Kiwi boat however is three times that long, so I asked about the evolution of ship design. Apparently, the defending winner of the America’s Cup can decide to change the boat design parameters, while also deciding the next race location.

For the upcoming 2013 race in San Francisco, the new look is a skeletal-like catamaran (above), with enough sail cloth to catch 12 tons of wind pressure. These delicate carbon fiber crafts will flip over without too much hesitation if you’re reigning the mainsail in a little too tight for too long.

Back onshore in the marina, check out the Blue Water Black Magic exhibit at the Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum, which showcases “The Exploring Spirit of a Seafaring Nation.” The interactive displays celebrate skipper Sir Peter Blake and the BLACK MAGIC NZL32 yacht he captained to victory in the 1995 America’s Cup.

To book a New Zealand program, contact Celeste Jones, director of incentives, at IDNZ Destination Management.

Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum
Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum

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