The City of Sails, by Sail




David Whitley takes to the water in Auckland aboard an America’s Cup racing yacht – and quickly becomes part of the crew.

Auckland is a city that rapidly improves when you get out on the water. And this is perhaps why New Zealanders tend to make such good sailors. Team New Zealand is the reigning America’s Cup champion, and the next championship regatta will almost certainly be held in Auckland.

Chances are, anyone reading this is not going to be racing in that. But Auckland has a cheat’s method for any bumbling amateurs wishing to try their hand.

Moored in Viaduct Harbour are two yachts that have been used as training vessels for America’s Cup crews in the past. They are designed for speed rather than comfort, so any thoughts of sitting down on a comfy chair for a leisurely cruise around the harbour can go straight out of the window. The only adjustments to tourism have been a slightly heavier sail, a handrail, and a motor installed to get out of the marina.

Once into open sea, however, it’s all about getting that sail up to do the donkey work. And that means the crew – namely, the paying passengers – also have to do some donkey work. This generally involves taking to the winches, which are essentially hand-powered bikes, and grinding away. Then grinding away some more, and grinding away some more, as the sail inches its way up. A proper sailing crew would indisputably do this considerably faster, but concessions have to be made for the fact that today’s crew has no idea what it is doing.

It’s a workout for the arm muscles and the back, but the pay-off comes when the NZL 68 takes flight under full sail. From the deck, it feels astonishingly fast. The wind through the hair factor plays a part here, but it’s effortlessly cutting across Waitemata Harbour at speeds of between 9 and 12 knots. For context, that’s about as fast as the ferry heading between Auckland city centre and Devonport – and that’s travelling under motor.

It’s a vessel built for speed and manoeuvrability – the deep ocean swells would smash it to pieces, but close to the shore it is an imperious king.



Being built for speed means the crew have to lean against the edge of the boat for a semblance of comfort. But those edges do not stay on a level – and to the uninitiated yachtsmen, it feels like the deck is almost vertical. The bottom edge is practically in the water, and being on the top edge triggers a mild fear of heights.

But it doesn’t take long for this to become absolutely commonplace normality. The inner sea dogs come out surprisingly quickly, and reactions to barked commands as the yacht tacks and jibes in front of the Auckland skyline backdrop get faster and faster. There’s an infectious thrill about the whole thing, and it becomes easy to see why someone might get obsessive about spending as much time out on the water as possible. America’s Cup team selection might be a fair way off, but Team NZ has won over some converts.


The two hour America’s Cup Sailing Experience with the Explore Group costs from NZ$170.