A first hand account by Magnus Wheatley
The opportunity for a non-professional sailor to ride aboard an AC75 is, undoubtedly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something so scarce in sailing to be almost unfathomable. So tight are the America’s Cup testing and training schedules that teams simply cannot afford that most precious of commodities, time, in a campaign. Joyriders, it would seem, have no place in the America’s Cup.
So, when the mooted chance arose, in a scheduling window that was highly weather dependent before Emirates Team New Zealand de-camped to Barcelona for the European summer sailing season, the brief matter of some 23 hours of flying and a 19,674-kilometre journey from Cowes to Auckland was the only barrier. Trifling in comparison to the opportunity.
It’s the end of summer here in New Zealand and the arrival into Auckland International was hairy to say the least. An aborted, bumpy landing on an Emirates Airbus A380 and what’s called a ‘Go Around’ in aviation parlance gave a distinct clue as to what the conditions were going to be like in this sailing city and, more importantly, out on the Hauraki Gulf – the Mecca of sailing.
For three days it rained – persistently enough that on day one, hours after arrival, the local government issued a state of emergency for Auckland as monsoon-like conditions hit and hit hard. Sailing was not looking promising initially but the experience of being in and around the Emirates Team New Zealand set-up at their Wynyard Dock base was a rare glimpse into sports excellence. In the America’s Cup you rarely get taken into the inner sanctum of a team, but such is this team’s confidence borne from some 30 years of solid, hard-won experience at the apex of the game that the welcome was unanimous and gracious.
The daily weather updates from Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham that are beamed to all the team and pored over, showed an improving picture towards the end of the week and Friday 12th May was called as a sailing day for the AC75 that I had had the privilege of being shown around by Nick Burridge early in the week within the main hangar. It’s a day that will burnish in the memory long into old age and something very much to tell the grandchildren.
The night before, it was tough to sleep in that kid-before-Christmas-morning way but waking up as first light broke over the distinctive Auckland downtown landscape with the Sky Tower standing as a beacon of this fabulous waterfront city, the sky was clear, the wind was noticeably lighter, and everything pointed to a sailing day.
Arriving at the Emirates Team New Zealand base super-early, the place was already abuzz with the Shore Team prepping the awesome ‘Te Rehutai’, the Cup winning boat from 2021, before rolling out just after 8.30am. The efficiency of the Kiwis is a top-to-bottom phenomenon. Everyone knows their job and is there to do it to the very best of their ability. Many sports teams talk about ‘team’ but Emirates Team New Zealand genuinely live, breathe and believe the team ethic. No Tall Poppies. It shows everywhere and in everything.
The focus on sailing, and retaining the America’s Cup, is relentless and it’s an infectiously professional environment to be in and around, tinged with can-do Kiwi gallows humour and banter. Everyone is friendly. There’s no edge but there are no hiding places either. It’s what every corporate organisation the world over would love to bottle and distribute and it’s what makes them such a potent force in the America’s Cup. They are, in short, a credit to the country of New Zealand.
Launch of the monstrous AC75 into what the Kiwis call ‘the pen’ was smooth as silk. ‘Te Rehutai’ dropped in and sat obediently between two pontoons as sails were loaded and from nowhere the sailors arrived en-masse to go about the rigging. There are simply no Prima Donnas, no divas, no dramas, everyone from the star-name helms to the lesser known but none less significant goes about their work with an efficiency that you simply can’t buy and beggars belief. These are the holders of the America’s Cup for a reason and it’s a privilege to be around one of the world’s greatest sporting teams.