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Sail of the Century

Sailing out of Auckland harbor

Costly equipment, a $5K directional compass

Ship's hand at work in port
by Ian Lloyd Neubauer

When the U.S. stole victory from New Zealand at the America's Cup in San Francisco Bay in September after bouncing back from an 8-1 disadvantage, it rekindled interest in the prestigious sailing series that hadn't been seen in decades.It also sparked interest in people wanting to sail America's Cup Class AC72-class hydrofoiling catamaran – multimillion-dollar engineering marvels that levitate above the water on wing-like foils at speeds of up 55 miles per hour. Such is their ferociousness on the water that crew are required to wear an array of safety gear: body armuor, high-visibility crash helmets, emergency positioning beacons and hands-free breathing apparatuses. They're also required to undertake months of arduous training, have years of sailing experience and be pretty good swimmers in case they end up in the drink.

Yet just about any able-bodied person can experience the thrill of what it was like competing in the America's Cup before the switch from conventional monohull yacht to AC72 catamarans in 2010, onboard the NZL 68. An America's Cup class monohull yacht built for Germany's sailing team in 2003, the NZL 68 now operates as a pleasure craft in Auckland, the City of Sails.

Formula One of Boats
The wind is blowing at a gentle 15 knots as we motor out of Viaduct Harbour into Waitemata Harbour, an arm of the Hauraki Gulf, one of the most geographically and biologically diverse marine parks on earth. Each direction of the compass offers gobsmacking views: to the south is Auckland's statuesque Central Business District crowned by the 328m-high Sky Tower, with the Auckland Harbour Bridge in the west, the well-healed beachside suburbs of Auckland's North Shore to the north and Rangitoto Island, the largest of Auckland's 55 extinct volcanoes, shimmying in the west.

Ten minutes after leaving port the team of five young Aucklanders commanding NZL 68 cut the engine which, along with steel rails fixed along the either side of the hull and the principal sail, are the only modifications made to the $10-million 24-tonne yacht to render it safe and suitable for general use.

“The original sail was transparent and threaded with carbon fibre and designed for speed and power rather than longevity or strength,” says skipper Jason Hendy. “It cost $120,000 and would last no longer than a month until it started tearing apart. The one we're using now is a lot stronger and made from kevlar. It costs about $70,000 and can last for up to two years.”The sail, however, is just the icing on the cake of the phenomenally expensive exercise of keeping NZL 68 afloat. The high-tensile rope used to keep the sail taut cost $1,300 a metre. The carbon fibre handles on the oversized grinders used to winch the sails up and down the mast cost $2,500 apiece. And every two years the yacht has to be hauled out of the water, disassembled piece by piece and then put back together again for preventative maintenance. Not surprisingly, going for a ride in it doesn't come cheap: when Richard Branson hired it out for a two-hour private charter during a recent visit to Auckland, he forked out $25,000 for the pleasure. “To be honest, we shouldn't even be sailing this thing,” Hendy says. “It's like you and your mates going out, buying a Formula One racing car, tinkering with the suspension and taking it for a spin around the block.”

Wind in Your Hair
Yet sail it we do, though not before a quick safety lesson during which passengers from Australia, the US, a group of Chinese with very expensive cameras and three British guys riding around New Zealand on a BMW Mottorad motorcycle tour learn three very important don'ts: don't stand inside a bundle of rope lest you want to get yanked overboard; don't put your hand anywhere near a titanium cog under the sail lest it chew your fingers off mid-spin; and don't hold onto the masts' high-tensile ropes unless you favour being sucked up through the 35 metre mast. “Sometimes people misinterpret the safety briefing and sometimes they don't listen,” Hendy says. “But so far we've been lucky. Nobody has ever been hurt.”

Normally it takes 17 hardened, burly sailors to sail NZL 68. Yet with only five crew aboard, volunteers are called to grind the chunky steel grinders used to raise the sail. They take their places, one on either side of the grinders and, on the skipper's command, begin hand-pedaling with all their might as the sail creeps its way up the mast. The New Zealand sailing team that used NZL 68 as their training vessel from 2005 until 2010 once raised the sail in nine seconds. It takes our crew nearly a minute to get it up there but the result is much the same, our vessel now coasting at 16 knots through the choppy blue waters of Hauraki Gulf. As we pick up more speed the vessel tilts to the starboard side and we find ourselves lying nearly completely upright, holding onto the side rails for dear life. Someone yells and points to water where a seal breaches the water's surface and flashes us a curious look. The Chinese fumble for their cameras but in a flash the creature is gone, though we also get to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins and in the distance, a whale. And while the adventure comes to an end much too soon, the memory of sailing a boat built to win glory in the world's oldest and most prestigious yachting event lingers indefinitely. “It's the nicest feeling when they turn the engines off,” says Trevor Stafford from the UK, “and you're left with nothing but the sound of the sail and the wind in your hair.”

If You Go
Sail New Zealand (; +649 359 5987) charge NZ$160 for a two-and-a-half-hour America's Cup Sailing Experience in Auckland and $NZ210 for a three-hour America's Cup Racing Experience.

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