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America's Cup: Mayor calls for rethink on controversial course decision

by Richard Gladwell, 21 Oct 20:05 PDT 22 October 2020
Emirates Team New Zealand and American Magic - Stadium Course - Waitemata Harbour - September 21, 2020 © Richard Gladwell /

Auckland's Mayor, Phil Goff has quickly spoken up on the controversial Arbitration Panel decision cut the available courses down from five to three options and remove the two Stadium courses.

"We want the America's Cup to be as accessible to as many Aucklanders and New Zealanders as possible. I would encourage all parties to work together to find a better solution", was Goff's response to a decision which would take racing away from being able to be viewed from the shore by Aucklanders and visitors from outside the City of Sails.

The majority decision by the three-man Arbitration Panel goes against the proposals by the Race Director Iain Murray (AUS). He was asked by the Panel for his view, on October 3.

As well as having been a Race Director for the 2013 and 2017 America's Cups, Murray has competed on the stadium courses in both 12ft and 18ft skiff classes when he was a teenager, winning a World 18ft skiff title and an Interdominion (Australia and NZ) title on the Waitemata.

The Stadium Courses located between North Head, Bastion Point and the southern half of Auckland's North Shore offer sheltered water for the foiling monohulls which are expected to be sailing at over 50kts during the America's Cup.

As well they have natural grandstands for spectators on North Head and Bastion Point offering superb views of the courses.

Foul weather courses now used

The Arbitration Panel Ruling, with Graham Mckenzie (NZL) dissenting, allows racing only on Course A - off Takapuna Beach, Course D between Rangitoto Island, Brown's Island and Motuihe Island, and Course E off Eastern Beach and Waiheke Island.

The last two courses were only originally on the course area as strong wind course options.

In an America's Cup which has been hard hit by COVID-19, the decision removes the spectacular backdrops provided by the City and surrounding white sand beaches, along with the pohutukawa forested Rangitoto Island.

Previous America's Cups have been staged well out into the Hauraki Gulf, near-invisible from land, except for those owning properties overlooking the race area. On the Stadium Courses, the America's Cup AC75's can, and do pass within 50-100 metres of spectators on the shoreline - and the AC75's can be viewed easily without binoculars.

The Arbitration Panel decision appears to be hinged around a request by Ports of Auckland and the Harbourmaster requesting that the "Prada Cup round-robin races be restricted to race Courses A, D or E. Racecourses B & C cannot be used for these races."

The full contents and rationale for the comment were not disclosed in the published decision. The Proposal sought by the Arbitration Panel from the Race Director accommodated this stipulation by the Harbourmaster and often controversial Port company, which is 50% owned by the Auckland Council and its ratepayers.

Normally Auckland would have heavy cruise liner traffic in the summer season, and the larger vessels can only enter and leave on the high tide. However, due to COVID-19, cruise ships are banned from entering Auckland Harbour, or NZ waters. The only harbour traffic currently traversing the racecourse areas are the infrequent visits and departures of container ships, smaller container freighters and ferries. Their movements can be handled with rescheduling if necessary, or provision of transit lanes for ferried if required.

The harbour was closed for 13 days in 2009 during race days for the Louis Vuitton Trophy.

The round-robin phase of the Prada Cup was only scheduled to be sailed on four working weekdays, with the other six days being on weekends when disruption to commuter ferries would not occur.

The loss of the Stadium courses will not shift fans to the America's Cup Village - where the fan capacity is limited to 27,950 people. The America's Cup Village is an unticketed, free event for the public.

The letter from the Ports of Auckland and Harbourmaster has been picked up by the Challenger of Record organisation and the three challenger teams.

They have taken the lines that the Protocol that the Prada Cup and America's Cup should be held on the same venue and course areas as used for the America's Cup, and that access to the course areas should be unrestricted.

By convention, the America's Cup Defenders and Challenger have always shared the time spent on the use of the course areas - either for selection or training. It is not known how this would have operated specifically in Auckland, but it is a matter that should be determined by the Regatta Director.

The Arbitration Panel in making their ruling has picked up on these three points as well as referencing the Harbourmaster's comments.

"The decisions issued by the Harbourmaster have the effect of restricting the usage of part of the course area announced in Notices 7 and 27. In particular, the course locations B and/or C cannot be used during the round Robin and semi-final stages of the Prada Cup/CSS. This, therefore, constitutes a "restriction on access" to the course area, and accordingly any course area which is the subject of such restriction cannot be used in either the Prada Cup/CSS or the Match."

"North Head, Orakei, Narrow Neck are all out as spectator venues," said ETNZ and ACE CEO, Grant Dalton.

"No-one should be under any illusion that historically the objective of the Challenger of Record has always been to win the Cup at almost any cost. People that don't know the Cup struggle to get their heads around that."

"In the summer, the reason we are starting at 4.00pm is that the West Coast seabreeze fills into the harbour, and often doesn't even get out as far as Takapuna or Beachlands. We have monitored this year and know climatology-wise that no two years are the same.

"We would have raced every single day, from 2.30pm onward, this year, on the inside Course C - we'd be racing in front of everybody."

"It wasn't by accident that we made the racing start at 4.00pm. The West Coast seabreeze is in at 14kts at 4.00pm - it's just perfect."

Hollow victory

The outcome of the decision, if it is not altered, could well blowback on the Challengers.

The most likely Course to be used is Course A off Takapuna Beach. The inshore area is riddled with Transpac and other cables which usually force racing to be held further offshore.

A sea breeze of 15kts, and particularly one that has been blowing for several days on end, kicks up a significant chop. While great for Olympic and international class world sailing events is not ideal for foiling AC75s and indeed was what ETNZ decided against staying with the AC50 class used in the last America's Cup.

Course D is not able to be aligned for NE/SW winds because of the influence of 800ft high Rangitoto Island on one side and the presence of reefs on the southern side.

"The course that runs along the southern edge of Rangitoto (Course D) is a highly unlikely course and was put in for a straight Easterly or Westerly", Dalton explains. "Firstly we never get those, and secondly, unless the tide is full, there isn't enough water once you get off the course. So, that course would never really get used."

The likely outcome is that much of the racing will be held on Course E, otherwise known as "The Paddock" and Emirates Team New Zealand's preferred training ground in the build-up to the 2017 America's Cup and also used extensively in the build-up for the current event.

In a touch of irony, ETNZ and ACE CEO, Grant Dalton, first started sailing in a P-class from his grandfather's house at Maretai bordering the edge of Course E.

"They complain we have local knowledge - some of us have been sailing here since we were four years old. And when was the last time that local knowledge helped you in the America's Cup?" he asked.

"They are paranoid that we can practice on those inner courses while they are racing on Course A," he added

"There are significant safety issues because on Course A if there is a decent northerly over 15kts, we'll be heading to Beachlands (Course E). That will happen probably half the time."

In early November 2019, Emirates Team New Zealand's AC75 Te Aihe, came close to rolling into windward, when sailing in a healthy seabreeze accompanied by the usual seaway. They canned the session and headed at speed for the sheltered waters of Course E.

While the racing may take place largely out the sight of fans, the Arbitration Panel decision and Challengers' action appear to have handed the Defenders a massive home ground advantage in sailing waters. As well the Defender has access to several years of weather data for the area they have collected from past campaigns.

Ironically the areas in which the America's Cup Defenders have trained the least are the two course areas that have been removed by the Arbitration Panel.

Two of the Challengers, INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa have yet to sail in Auckland and experience any of the proposed race areas using their AC75's. Emirates Team New Zealand have been sailing their AC75 mostly on Course A and Course E for over a year, and American Magic similarly since July 2020. Course D seems to be a moderately popular training area

Of course in the time between now and the start of the Prada Cup the teams can sail on Courses B and C at will. The fact of the matter is that before the decision was announced on Friday only two teams had actually sailed AC75's on the Waitemata Harbour. If those American Magic usually tows through the area in dispute on their way out to train, and similarly on the return, or at best sails straight through without stopping to train. Only Emirates Team New Zealand train regularly (and not that frequently on Course C). Most of the teams training seem to consist of speed work on locations that are not being used for racing.

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