Andrew Bray reports from New Zealand
Leaving a slightly chilly and autumnal England I arrived after the marathon 23-hour flight to a decidedly chilly and spring-like New Zealand where the trees are just turning to green even as the European leaves wither and drop, and where the optimism of lengthening days and a summer ahead contrast with the prospect of a dark and wet British winter.
But New Zealand has a great deal more to look forward to than longer and warmer days, for here are gathered the gladiators ready for the greatest sailing show on earth, the America’s Cup, with the opening bouts, the Louis Vuitton Cup, due to start in little over 24 hours. All the teams’ training, all their boat preparation, all the tank testing, the design, building and tuning, all the crew work, fitness programmes and final selections are now over. On Tuesday morning out on the Hauraki Gulf it all starts for real.
This is my first America’s Cup and one initial impression is that of contradictions. Just across the dock from the Louis Vuitton Media Centre, mostly shrouded and kept from prying eyes behind locked doors are some of the most sophisticated racing machines on the planet, crewed by the world’s top sailors. Moored nearby, in keeping with this impression is a handful of superyachts, though the main basin is surprisingly empty. Then, on the quayside, Aucklanders wander up and down, enjoying their weekend, eating burgers and ice creams, apparently oblivious of the momentous events about to start on Tuesday, events the outcome of which could have a huge impact on the prosperity – or otherwise – of this City of Sails. For Auckland, and New Zealand for that matter, has come to depend on the Cup, to take it almost for granted. And it’s as if no-one has considered that New Zealand could actually lose the Cup.
There were contradictions too in the opening ceremony, a wonderfully informal, even amateur affair with relaxed crowds to cheer the teams by, a sharp contrast to the huge professionalism of the organisations taking part in and staging the show on the water. The heroes marched by with their crews and support teams, Dean Barker, NZ’s David Beckham receiving the lion’s share of the cheers, GBR’s Peter Harrison with Union Jack held high, Mr America’s Cup, Dennis Connor reclining in the back of a jeep and even the defectors from Alinghi, Russell Coutts especially, receiving nothing worse than a slightly muted cheer.
Right now 45 knots of wind is howling across the arena for Tuesday’s opening races, with 30 knots forecast for Monday, still too much for the fragile racing machines that will not go out and start in over 22 knots. The gods of weather, it seems, are serving notice for the months ahead.