Yachting: Stage set for Act 4

By Suzanne McFadden

Kevin Shoebridge, the day-to-day boss of Emirates Team New Zealand, chuckles at the irony of Auckland's fickle weather. Two summers ago, sailors sat and waited for days on end for a fair wind to blow on the Hauraki Gulf to race in the America's Cup. Now, with the silverware elsewhere, the summer winds have been superb. In the four months of Team New Zealand's first full-blown testing session towards the 2007 regatta, the team lost one day to the weather.

"It's been a phenomenal summer," Shoebridge said. "Better than we'd hoped. We almost had too much sailing - there were days we stayed ashore when we could have been out there."

Team New Zealand wrapped up its summer sailing programme this week and Shoebridge, the operations/sailing manager - or the guy responsible for the day-to-day running of the syndicate - is a satisfied man.

"We made serious progress in the last four months," he said. The team have accumulated hard drives full of testing data from their sailing on the Gulf, to be used for the design and construction of Team New Zealand's two generation 2007 race boats.

NZL82 has been packed up, ready to be shipped to Valencia for the next round of the Louis Vuitton Acts in June - the first of six pre-America's Cup events scheduled for the latter half of this year, in Spain, Sweden and Sicily.

The sailing team said goodbye to the Auckland base on Wednesday - some of them won't be home for another six months. Others will fly back and forth between Europe and New Zealand between Acts.

Although he carries a manager's title, 42-year-old Shoebridge is no collar-and-tie man. Like Team New Zealand head Grant Dalton, he has been on the water every sailing day, either directing testing or pulling his weight as a trimmer. He has a lot to offer. One of the most versatile sailors in yachting, Shoebridge is on his sixth America's Cup, after sailing around the world five times.

Beginning with the 1987 New Zealand challenge and sailing for America's OneWorld last time, Shoebridge never expected to be involved in this America's Cup until his childhood sailing mate, Dalton, gave him a call.

"I was going around the world again," he said. "I've probably got another circumnavigation in me somewhere." After crewing on two round-the-world race winners - with Sir Peter Blake on Steinlager and Dalton on New Zealand Endeavour - Shoebridge skippered his own boat, Team Tyco, in the last Volvo Ocean Race. But he has no regrets he won't be on the start-line of this year's Volvo event.

"I loved skippering a boat around the world - it reinvigorated my desire for yachting," he said. "But it's nearly two years since I started here, and it's been hugely satisfying. Some teams feel great, some you struggle with. This one is really enjoyable. I'm a bit more involved this campaign."

Naturally, Shoebridge won't reveal the nitty-gritty of what progress Team New Zealand has made but he's happy to give a rundown of what they got up to.

"We spent a lot of time on the narrow, German boat out there. We built a new rig along the way and had pretty full-on, in-house racing. At the same time, the design team have made numerous trips to England for tank testing and we'll have our first new boat at the end of the year," he said. "We got a lot of information off the water and had some lively meetings discussing it all."

The next step is to test their sailing prowess once more, against other Cup contenders in Valencia. Half of the 100-strong team will go to Europe this winter for the Louis Vuitton Cup Acts. Team New Zealand will take NZL82, three chase boats, two rigs and its own chef and travelling kitchen. They go into Act 4, on June 17, as favourites, having topped the matchracing regatta in Act 2 last October.

"We had a lot of fun last year but we'd be fools not to think Alinghi, Oracle and Prada will come out all guns blazing," he said. "The good thing is we came straight from those Acts last year to sail a complete summer here.

"The other teams are just starting in the Northern Hemisphere now. The Acts are the main event of our year - without them there wouldn't be the same intense preparations. They've changed the whole face of the America's Cup."

The six Acts carry points towards the Louis Vuitton Cup proper in 2007.

Louis Vuitton

ACTS POISED: Acts 4&5: Valencia, Spain, June 17-27.
Acts 6&7: Malmo, Sweden, Aug 26-Sept 5. Acts 8&9: Trapane, Sicily, Sept 30-Oct 10

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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