x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Diary: Close sailing at the Louis Vuitton Trophy

It's day four of the Louis Vuitton Trophy in Auckland and, down at Viaduct Basin, I'm given a place on the radio broadcast boat to follow the boats.

After a bumpy landing in Auckland yesterday - courtesy of the strong wind that had caused the day's racing to be cancelled - I wake to a very different morning. With just a whisper of breeze, the city is bathed in late summer sunshine - the light piercingly clear, like nowhere else in the world I have been (Remember that "washed" quality of the UAE sky the morning after the recent storms? Clear and bright but still nowhere near the wattage of the light here). It's day four of the Louis Vuitton Trophy and, down at Viaduct Basin, I'm given a place on the radio broadcast boat to follow the boats - a close-up, insider's view, complete with running commentary. It's part of this city's love affair with sailing that there's a radio channel devoted to live regatta coverage.

Stéphane Kandler, the chief executive of the Franco-German team, All4One is with us as a guest commentator. His team is up first, against the local boys, Emirates Team New Zealand. They are local to New Zealand, of course, and to the UAE, since it is sponsored by Emirates Airline and the team trains in Dubai on occasion, so there's plenty of banter about "unbiased" commentary. There's a nice 10 knot breeze as the gun goes for the first race at 10.30am and, already, about 30 spectator boats (from small, open craft to classic sailing yacht and 20-metre motor boat) are prowling the fringes of the race area. Aucklanders are prone to taking to the water on a Saturday to relax, perhaps do a spot of fishing in the rich waters of the Rangitoto Channel, and see some world-class yacht racing in the process. It couldn't be a nicer morning for it. People have also set themselves up on North Head, the hilly point on the city's North Shore, from where they will have a grandstand view. I'm thinking, when the event comes to Dubai in November, a 10th-floor apartment in JBR (Jumeirah Beach Residence) would do the job nicely - and hoping that people will take advantage of it.

The fact that these races are so short for big boats (1.2 to 1.4 nautical miles per leg) makes it all the more interesting for spectators - a bit like a cricket Twenty20 fixture versus a Test match. It also means that if the boats mess up the five-minute pre-start, it's really hard to regain lost ground and win. Kandler explains it in Formula One terms: the equivalent of the pre-start is the qualifying where, if you're near the front of the grid you have a much better chance of winning. The difference, in this racing, is that it takes five minutes, not two days. So those minutes can be some of the most intense moments of the race, with the two boats circling each other like sharks before one breaks out, or in the case of TeamOrigin in Race 2 today, does a 180º turn right on the line to go behind Aleph and grab the windward side of the start line. Result - a minor collision and a penalty for Aleph. "Did Ben Ainslie deliberately 'sucker' the French boat into the infringement?" the guys on our boat were asking". Whatever it is, it is costing Aleph the race before it even starts, since they will have to execute a 360º penalty turn. The drama continues as the wind rises to 20 knots and a brief rain squall comes through in the early afternoon. "The one thing you can predict about Auckland weather is its unpredictability," said the late Peter Blake when he led ETNZ to an America's Cup victory. But the real drama was on the race course, with a broken boat (Artemis) and nearly-disastrous spinnaker drop (Mascalzone Latino Audi). Mascalzone's master tactician, Morgan Larson - whom I last saw at the RC44s in Dubai last November - is with us to witness Artemis's agony, before being picked up by his team in one of the super-powerful RIBs that transfer the crews on and off the race yachts. And I think to myself, "Hmm ... I must get on to a transfer boat for one of the days; what a cool spot for watching the action". Meanwhile, just off the shore of the city's Eastern Bays, fleets of small single-handed yachts are busy with their weekly club races (no doubt producing the next generation of Kiwi sailing champions) and some bigger boats were competing in the BMW Sailing Cup New Zealand Championship, a global event for amateur sailors. It goes to show how crazy this country is about boats and why the world loves to come here to compete on the water.