By Suzanne McFadden* for Newsroom
The Prada Cup challenger series starts today. Suzanne McFadden goes behind the scenes of the world's only live yachting regatta to see what's in store for the next five weeks.
At 6am on race days, Iain Murray wakes up and immediately checks the weather outside his Auckland window.
"It's all about the weather," says the America's Cup regatta director, a highly accomplished Australian sailor and designer known, reverently, as The Big Fella.
The night before, Murray will have chosen the racecourse on the Hauraki Gulf where sailing for the Prada Cup will take place the next day, and what that course will look like. At 8pm, he lets the Auckland Harbourmaster know.
But the moment he rises in the morning, he double-checks to make sure the forecast has stayed true.
At 8am, Murray hops on his pushbike and rides to his office, the On-site Operations Centre at Wynyard Point, and his long day begins in earnest.
The sailors in the Prada Cup - the challenger series to determine who races Emirates Team New Zealand for the America's Cup in March - arrive at their bases around the waterfront at about the same time. They won't head out onto the water till around 1pm, with the first of two races for the day starting no earlier than 3pm (and the last no later than 6pm).
A daffodil yellow army of America's Cup staff and the more than 300 'city skippers' - volunteers on land - will begin to fill the race village within the Viaduct.
And some of the 128 course marshalls will start preparing to lay out the 'stadium' for the day - a task requiring pinpoint precision - with up to 3000 boats expected to gather around it on the big race days.
Friday is Day One of the Prada Cup - a regatta which may seem unexplainably drawn-out to those with little-to-no interest in the America's Cup. Three boats race each other across two weekends in four round robins - followed by a semifinal, and then the best-of-13 race final in mid-February.
But when you're a billionaire investor who's poured money into one of these voracious sailing campaigns, or a team member who's devoted their life for almost three years to a crack at sailing's holy grail, then you want as much time on the water as you can possibly get.
All's fair in love... and the America's Cup
As is tradition, the day before the challenger series begins, the skippers assemble before the world's sailing media. Well, traditionally it would be an international rabble, but of course, Covid-19 has stopped them from travelling here.
But still they call in on Zoom - at ungodly hours - to pose their questions, and the elegant white room within the pop-up shed on the Halsey Wharf dogleg is filled almost to the gunwales with local media and the syndicates' comms teams.
Patrizio Bertelli, the CEO of the Prada Group, also calls in from Tuscany, which is still firmly in the grip of the pandemic. Looming larger than life over the skippers' heads, Bertelli doesn't get off to a great start - he has the mute button on.
Through a translator, he says he's "absolutely frustrated" not to be in Auckland - where Prada is not only behind the Italian Luna Rossa team, but is also the race organiser for the challenger series for the first time, and the Challenger of Record. They last competed for the Cup in 2007, skipping the multihull generation.
The reason they're back with such gusto? "We felt the America's Cup was actually going down a strange road. The America's Cup seemed to have owners… it should have winners, defenders and challengers. The America's Cup should always remain what it's been," Bertelli says.
"It's a very sophisticated event with very special boats, but it's first and foremost a sporting event. It shouldn't become like a Formula One circuit. It's not what we want."
Fortunately, Bertelli says, Team NZ head Grant Dalton saw it the same way. Friends when their collaboration for this Cup began, the relationship between the two camps has since soured, yet Bertelli sees nothing wrong with a good dose of animosity. "We are opponents, and I think it's fair and right… and totally in line with the history of the America's Cup."
He's also unconcerned by the dearth of challengers. The 2021 event is like a start-up, he says, with new foiling monohulls the sailing world are watching with interest. Whoever wins the America's Cup, he hopes, will keeps this exciting class of boat. But, of course, that's completely up to the victors.
Picking a winner
Up on stage, Murray predicts there will be good sailing breeze to sail six races this weekend (though Saturday looks a little iffy). His goal is to run at least 70 percent of the regatta races between North Head and Ōrākei so people can watch from the best vantage points on land.
He's excited, he says, to see the match racing of the AC75s evolve and "the aggression of the starts come to the surface."
"There's a lot of equality between the boats in terms of speed and certainly the fundamentals of match racing are going to be on the table tomorrow. It's exciting - it's what brought Bruno [Troublé] and I to this sport 40 years ago - except its now 10 times faster."
Troublé, who sailed against Murray in the 1983 challenger series in Newport, Rhode Island, is back where he is most comfortable, behind the microphone running the media conferences.
In his 43 years embedded in the America's Cup, Troublé reckons he's never seen a closer race among the challenger fleet.
"It's very rare you don't know before racing starts who will be the challenger," he says, overlooking the glittering harbour. "I truly have no idea. Luna Rossa and American Magic are strong, and the Brits have got much better since the World Series.
"These boats tack better than a monohull or a multihull. They unexpectedly look like ideal match racing boats. We see them capsize and then get up again and carry on, where on a cat, you hit the water violently.
"The only real danger is if these boats collide at 40 knots. There will be damage then."
INEOS Team UK, who limped home from the America's Cup World Series in Auckland before Christmas, struggling to be competitive in any wind condition, have made an obvious improvement in speed in the two practice days raced earlier in the week.
They had to do something. Skipper and syndicate head, Sir Ben Ainslie reels off the changes to the boat since then: a new rudder, new elevator, new mast, new mainsail and headsails, aero modifications to the hull. It's been work around the clock, without a day off, for some of the shore crew.
"How far up the ladder we've come will be fascinating to see in the next few days. We can be competitive in the medium to stronger wind range; the lighter airs we still don't know," Ainslie says.
Troublé reminds the four-time Olympic Finn champion, that he once said as long as the Brits lost on the racecourse, he would front up to the after-race media debrief. "Our team have justifiably taken a lot of flak for our performance, and it's my job to protect them from that," Ainslie, looking a far more relaxed man, says. "With all due respect, Bruno, I'd prefer to see a lot less of you."
American Magic, the bookies' favourites to take out the challenger series, aren't of course resting on their laurels. They've worked on their boat, Patriot, over the festive period, but shied away from major changes - instead wanting to learn to sail it better.
"You'd never turn away more boat-speed upwind," says skipper Terry Hutchinson. "As we've seen in the last week, everyone has got faster... we're all pushing to get faster at every single moment of the race and that's where our focus has been."
This press conference is a tame affair, but when racing starts and the artful Jimmy Spithill - now one of Luna Rossa's dual helmsmen - comes to the stage, expect the banter to be a lot livelier.
An ever-fluid stadium
Retired policeman Martin Paget has been charged with keeping both sailors and on-the-water spectators safe over the next two months.
The on-water operations manager for the America's Cup, Paget has plenty of experience - as head of the Police Maritime Unit for Team NZ's last two defences.
"In 2000 and 2003, we had a massive course area and people had to guess where they had to be. It was really problematic," he says.
Now, with pinpoint accurate course mapping systems, and a public app that can help boaties see where they should and shouldn't be, he likens it to helping build a new stadium on the water every day (and sometimes every race).
"We put up the boundaries. I say to Iain Murray: 'It's your stadium, it's your racecourse, what you do in there is up to you. But if you need to change the shape of it, you just need to let us know'," Paget says.
That isn't an easy task. On the last day of the World Series regatta, there was confusion when Auckland's infamous fickle winds forced a change in the course but left spectator craft stranded in the middle. It took an hour to get racing started again.
"If you went to Eden Park and announced 'We're moving a game, going to another park, but not sure exactly where yet. So pack up your seats and get ready and we'll let you know'. See if they can get that game going in an hour," Paget says.
That early hiccup could partly be blamed on Covid-19. Race systems would have been put to the test at the two World Series events in Sardinia and Portsmouth last year, and any glitches ironed out.
The two practice days on the Gulf earlier this week were really system test days, says Paget, who's out on the water each day on a stylish 20m launch provided for free by its owners for the regatta.
"Those days were incredibly valuable because we rely a lot on technology - like knowing where the course boundaries are. We're getting ahead of the game now," he says.
A small armada of craft - including the Sea Cleaner fleet - head out to sea with the course marshalls (all volunteers highly-trained for this regatta), towing orange course boundary buoys, and the $165,000 bright red marks the yachts will race around.
Once all the markers are in the position Murray wants them, the marshalls to begin their other job - helping keep spectator boats safely outside the racecourse. "We're there to help and encourage, not to growl at people," Paget says. "We're trying to avoid heated conversations on the water."
Boaties are encouraged to register their craft (see the link below) to get up-to-date notifications on course layouts and conditions. A new smartphone app which should be up and running this weekend will help to show the course. Larger boats with AIS (Automatic Identification System) receivers will be able to get an electronic picture of the race course.
The Marine Radio channel 4 has also been commissioned for the Prada and America's Cups to transmit updated information at least every 30 minutes.
"You should also look for the visual clues, stay outside the orange buoys, and keep your sense of humour," Paget says.
"We are way ahead of where we would have been five years ago running an event. I'm happy."
Things you need to know
The challengers - Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (Italy), American Magic (USA) and INEOS Team UK (Britain).
Prada Cup dates - four round robins over the next two weekends, January 15-24; semifinal, between the second and third ranked teams, January 29 to February 2; best of 13 races (first to seven) final, February 13-22.
America's Cup match - best of 13 races, March 6-21.
Race schedule - Two races a day. Races won't start before 3pm, and are unlikely to start after 6pm.
Best place for [www.americascup.com latest race information]
Register your boat here to get a race day text or email on the racecourse and weather conditions.
Race courses - There are five race courses within the inner Hauraki Gulf. Decisions on which race course each day will be announced around 10am. Find information on the courses here.
On the water - listen to Marine VHF Radio Channel 4 dedicated to America's Cup information
Watch from land - North Head and Devonport, Ōrākei and Tāmaki Drive for courses C and D; Takapuna and Milford for Course A; St Heliers and Achilles Point for course D; Maraetai for Course E. Also on big screens in the America's Cup Race Village in Wynyard Quarter.
* Suzanne McFadden is the editor of LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport, and a writer on the America's Cup.
This article was originally published by Newsroom.