Auckland has had a long love affair with round-the-world yacht races. It started with the campaigns of the late Sir Peter Blake and crowds who lined the cliffs to watch vessels helmed by him or Grant Dalton appear over the horizon and race for line honours in their home port. We felt its absence in years that it was lured to other ports for an antipodean stopover. Now that the Volvo Ocean Race is back, the city and the sailors meet like old friends.
Though the six yachts now racing toward Auckland might not arrive until Tuesday, the reception for them starts today with the opening of a "race village" at Viaduct Harbour. A seventh is already here, having been brought for repairs after a collision with a fishing boat at the approach to Hong Kong. It will rejoin the race when the fleet leaves for Brazil on March 18.
Nine Kiwis are among the crews in the race, including Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, not on the same boat for once. Their presence should ensure keen interest in the positions of the boats as they come down the Northland coast and the champion pair will give the stopover a valuable link with the America's Cup.
In fact, it could be said the arrival of the Volvo comes at a valuable time for the America's Cup, too, with continuing indecision over the precise placement of the syndicate bases for the 2021 defence.
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Four options are now under discussion with the addition of a proposal from Viaduct Harbour Holdings this week. Whichever plan is finally agreed between Team New Zealand, the Auckland Council and the Government, the Cup village will be in the vicinity of the Viaduct so it will good to see that area fizzing with the life of an international sailing contest over the next three weeks.
The racing boats will be on display, all of them hauled out for maintenance on cradles in "Pit Lane" near the Viaduct Events Centre race headquarters. A half-boat replica of the Volvo Ocean 65 will be set up and visitors will be able to crawl through it, getting a sense of what it is like to sleep, eat, work and live in such confines over weeks at sea. Music and entertainment will be on stage at Te Wero Island, across the bridge from the events centre.
Two bars will be set up there with big screens for watching sailing, and there will be plenty of that while the fleet is here.
The Herald is sponsoring an in-port practice race on March 9 and an in-port race proper the following day. A pro-am practice race and race proper are scheduled for March 15-16, two days before the yachts depart for the long leg around Cape Horn.
By then the city's appetite should be whetted for an even longer feast of sailing culture when the America's Cup gets under way and we can only hope the base plans are finally agreed by the time the Volvo departs.
The latest proposal looks to be the best of the lot. Viaduct Harbour Holdings, owned by property holders in the area, would move two more bases out of the Viaduct basin to the Westhaven side of the Wynyard Quarter, thereby removing the need for an extension to Hobson Wharf and reducing the extension of Halsey Wharf, where Team NZ could have pride of place. The rest of the bases would be on Wynyard Point, removing part of the tank farm.
The plan offers the least intrusion on the harbour and it is not drastically different from the designs already under discussion. Let us hope a decision is near and the City of Sails can enjoy the Volvo knowing it has years of festivities ahead.