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SailGP Christchurch set to be the last, says Coutts blaming the intransigence of 'minority groups'

by Richard Gladwell Sail-World NZ 22 Mar 04:00 PDT
The SailGp F50 catamaran fleet ahead of the ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix in Christchurch, New Zealand. March 22, 2024 © Felix Diemer/SailGP

In an interview with Television New Zealand on Friday, Sir Russell Coutts, CEO of SailGP, says the event will not return to Christchurch in 2025, and possibly not ever.

"There have been a few entities that really make life difficult for us, so, for example, the only dates we can get here next year are February, and they've told us they can't run the event in February. Interestingly, they said if it was the end of February, like the last day, it might be OK, but not before."

"Unfortunately, we won't be here next year and possibly not ever because we need those February dates to fit in with the international calendar."

Sir Russell believed the Lyttelton leg's become far too complex. When asked who was stopping that date, he said "there's a few".

"Like a lot of things in New Zealand these days, there are a few minority groups that have a huge say in what happens, and that's the way it works," he said in an item that led the prime-time news on the state-owned broadcaster.

Coutts' comments came just after the media conference to open the international sailing regatta, which claims to be the biggest ticketed sailing event in the world. Twenty-two thousand spectator tickets are said to have been sold, and many thousands will watch from shoreside vantage points. Held for the first time in 2023 in Christchurch, the event brings in $4 million to the city for an Event Fee 2023 of $1 million.

Coutts says that Auckland, and possibly Wellington and picturesque Queenstown are options. Previously he has mooted the possibility of New Zealand having two SailGP events.

The current venue, Lyttelton Harbour, is a marine sanctuary for the endangered Hector's dolphin. SailGP Christchurch has been targeted by an environmental group whose focus is protecting the smallest dolphin species.

In 2023, audio/sonic systems were put in place to monitor the movement of marine mammals with the sonic/audio systems, with a restriction on sailing if the dolphins came within 300 metres of the race yachts, which hold the current race speed record for any class of yacht.

However the protected dolphins were observed to approach within the 300metres zone last year, and racing continued. That triggered a Department of Conservation Inquiry, which imposed stricter measures, including giving an independent official the ability to call off racing if there was a dolphin safety issue during racing or practice.

The 2024 SailGP event was due to have been held in Auckland. However, negotiations over the venue broke down, said to be over whether the spectator stadium seating could be located on Wynyard Point - where American Magic and INEOS Britannia were based during the 2021 America's Cup. Since the Cup, the storage area for former fuel and hazardous substances has been completely reclaimed and is being ventilated to allow hazardous gas to escape. The arguments over use by SailGP are believed to have hinged on whether the area, in this state, was safe for public use.

However, the Lyttelton-specific issues raised by Sir Russell Coutts have precedent in Auckland - with 2017-2018 negotiations for the creation of what is now known as Jellicoe Harbour and its surrounds going right down to the wire - with the 2021 America's Cup being within 24 hours of transfer to the alternate venue in Sardinia, Italy. In the end, a two-week expected Hearing in the Environment Court struggled to last more than two days - with parties with legal standing being able to agree on all major issues mutually.

The situation faced by SailGP in Auckland and Christchurch was played out during the run-up to the America's Cup held in Auckland. In mid-2020, it was obvious that, financial reasons aside and with the then-controlling parties still in place, the event was unlikely to be staged in Auckland. That perception was confirmed within five minutes of Emirates Team NZ retaining the America's Cup on March 17, 2021.

At the heart of the matter is ownership and control of the water on which the racing is held, with several groups and authorities claiming ownership or the right of approval. In some situations, these demands can be assuaged for financial payments that run into six figures. The legal position of some parties is uncertain and has yet to be resolved politically.

The bottom line is that staging major sailing events such as the America's Cup and SailGP is very fraught and time-consuming compared to other international venues for the same events. Regattas that could have been held in Auckland go elsewhere.

The perception is that America's Cup and SailGP are the plaything of the wealthy and can, therefore, afford charges and fees that have no foundation in financial reality, only exacerbating an already fraught venue negotiation process.

To the surprise of no-one, currently there are no major sailing events on the Auckland or New Zealand sailing calendar, outside some dinghy class worlds.

What is forgotten in the various media tirades is that major sailing events lift an already substantial NZ Marine Industry - which has an annual turnover of $ 3 billion and provides 8,000 jobs. Also in place is an excellent apprenticeship scheme to train school leavers in composite engineering and construction as well as other high-added-value trades and occupations. While some of the NZ marine turnover is domestic, major companies of which there are several, have 80% of their turnover going to export.

The events of the next two days in Lyttelton are likely to sharpen the focus on a much bigger and more serious issue, but without some astute political management, the situation of hosting major international sailing events in New Zealand is likely to remain unresolved.

To read the full story published by TVNZ's 1 News click here

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