Light airs dog Millennium Cup regatta as billion dollar's worth of superyachts fight it out on Auckland's Hauraki Gulf

Dennis Conner, Paul Cayard, Torbel Grael, Francesco de Angelis and a crop of top helmsmen were all in action on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf yesterday but it had very little to do with the America’s Cup itself. Fifty yachts worth an estimated NZ$ billion dollars struggled in light airs during the opening race of the Millennium Superyacht Regatta which has been providing visitors to Auckland with a little light entertainment before the first America’s Cup match on Saturday. It’s an extraordinary gathering, an America’s Cup side show in which owners of some of the world’s finest sailing and motor yachts get the chance to hire the top hands, at least those now side-lined from the Cup, and pit their wits against fellow millionaires on the America’s Cup course. It’s a bit like letting Michael Schumacher loose on an F1 track in your Bentley Continental, big Mercedes or Rolls Royce and there were moments at the start and in some of the gybing duels which might have had owner’s wondering whether their salt water palaces were getting a little too close to each other for comfort. For the hopelessly statistically minded if you lined up all 50 yacht bow to stern they would stretch for more than a mile! Twenty one of the sailing yachts measured over 100ft. This year’s regatta (the first was held before the last defence of the Cup in Auckland) demonstrated how in three years the calibre of very large sailing boats has changed markedly with a much sharper performance edge. Owners now demand not only luxurious accommodation and push button sail controls but also the speed of a maxi. And if you can tempt the odd America’s Cup hand and designer aboard so much the better – if nothing else it looks good. While yachts like Neville Crichton’s 90ft Reichel/Pugh all carbon maxi Alfa Romeo walked away from the fleet followed closely by Mike Slade’s 98ft Canon Leopard, also from the Reichel Pugh board, the more intriguing battles were between monsters like Robert Miller’s 146ft 7in Mari Cha 111, the Frers designed 107-footer Ulisse, chartered by Patrizzio Bertelli and steered by Francesco de Angelis and the Ed Dubois designed Silvertip weighing in at 110ft 11in and sporting a very in vogue all silver livery. There was a sistership tussle between the three year old Frers designed 112-footer Unfurled, owned by Harry Macklow and the very recently launched Ipanema, owned by Brazilian Antonio Dias Leite, which on the first day was won by the older boat. Your reporter was sailing aboard Ipanema and I can tell you she was so new there was a completely unfinished interior and about five tons of fittings, upholstery and equipment missing which did no harm to our considerable boat speed. How that is taken into account under the IRC rating system is more difficult to assess. German and Manni Frers who were both aboard explained to me that Ipanema’s keel was a generation or two more advanced and varied from the Unfurled configuration which sports a daggerboard deployed through the bottom of the bulb keel. Torben Grael fairly flung the boat into the gybes as the wind died and the downwind legs became a guessing game with the angles but on the last leg Unfurled escaped our clutches and Ulisse, who had looked fast all day put enough distance between the rest of us to take the race despite her middle of the fleet rating. Day two was so quiet racing was abandoned, not a bad thing considering the back to back parties which leave Auckland throbbing late into the night as the first Cup match race approaches. Instead the fleet will prepare for a passage race to the uninhabited island of Kawau tomorrow followed by a spectacular dinner party on shoreside lawns. With Cartier, Jaguar New Zealand and United Airlines all helping this event along, there is plenty of pazzazz, but with owners and yachts like these in town an event of spectacular proportions is guaranteed anyway.

Results, day one

Division one 1. Ulisse, Francesco de Angelis. 2, Unfurled, Harry Macklowe. 3, Canon Leopard, Mike Slade/Paul Cayard. 4, Ipanema, Antonio Dias Leite/Torben Grael. 5, Alithia, Adam Painter.

Division two 1, Innovision, Hans Eekhol. 2, Anteus, Charles St Clair Brown. 3, Maya Ray, Dave Wagner. 4, Sariyah, Isam Kabbani. 5, Picasso, David Lynden.