Team NZ tacks away, avoids collision

They didn't quite burst into choruses of We are Sailing, but Auckland Councillors couldn't hide their relief yesterday at six words from America's Cup holder Team New Zealand.

"We are prepared to be flexible," Team NZ's chairman Sir Stephen Tindall, told the council as it steeled itself for a controversial decision on how and where to house sailing teams on the waterfront during the next Cup event in 2020/21.

And with that, the wind went out of the sails of all those in the room wanting to speechify against a big, $170 million extension of Halsey Wharf, 210 metres out into the Waitemata Harbour.

That was the option Team NZ had favoured.

The Mayor, Phil Goff, and council officials favoured a compromise in which $132m is spent on just 73 metres of extension to that wharf as part of a cluster of Cup bases over three wharves; Halsey, Hobson and Wynyard.

A third party, missing from yesterday's High Noon council meeting, is the government, whose unannounced Minister for the America's Cup David Parker apparently liked a third option based solely on the old Tank Farm land known as Wynyard Point.

When Tindall and the Team NZ chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge sat before councillors to answer questions about the Cup bases options, everyone had expected them to push hard for the big wharf spend, given that it allowed all teams to be housed on one wharf and best met the event criteria.

Team NZ, however, didn't get (back) where it is today without reading a room and understanding the public mood. When the National government withheld public funding before the winning Bermuda Cup challenge, Team NZ moved on and found private financing.

This time, Tindall and Shoebridge had watched the Council argue for two hours about another harbour structure - two mooring 'dolphins' off Queens Wharf to berth giant new cruise liners - and heard councillors and two local boards explain why even agreeing to that 80-85 metre structure was "swallowing a dead rat".  

Around the council table, politicians vied with eachother for the mantle of greatest protector of the harbour.

So when Goff asked Tindall what difference he saw between Tindall's own involvement in a campaign two years ago to stop encroachment into the harbour and Team NZ's favoured proposal for the big Halsey Wharf extension, you could have heard an America's Cup drop.

"I think if you look at the Halsey extension that absolutely is encroaching on the harbour," the answer started.

Then: "That's why we are prepared to be flexible and look at a cluster model that is not going to be as intrusive."

With that, the anticipated council struggle to justify blocking a bold single village on the big wharf and push its own compromise 'cluster' with the cheaper price tag, was over.

'I want to thank Team New Zealand for the flexibility that they have shown.'

Tindall added later: "From a personal perspective, I share the concern of Aucklanders about going out further and I think there is a cost reduction in going for the smaller version and it is probably reality that the extension was going to be a bridge too far for everybody."

Councillors took turns to salute the Team NZ change of stance. Goff emphasised that the Cup holders had been the main advocates of the Halsey Wharf extension and "I'm hearing.... that they do not require that."

In their more political moments last night over a celebratory gin and tonic, some of the councillors might have wondered if Team NZ has ended up with the result that it expected all along - bidding for the ideal but planning for the optimal. For in a political world, it is common to propose something bold on the understanding things will settle back once public reaction and political difficulties are established.

So a council that had wrestled with an 80-85 metre extension into the harbour of the cruise ship dolphins was hours later happy to endorse, or as its resolution said "express a preference for" a 73 metre extension into the same harbour of a whole wharf at Halsey St. Councillors and lobbyists will have seen off the 210-metre incursion - but must wonder if it was ever really needed.

Not that the plan agreed yesterday, with eight bases between Hobson, Halsey and Wynyard wharves, is set in stone. 

David Parker had taken a walk around the waterfront on Sunday and the government seemed to favour the Wynyard Point, tank farm, option. It is cheaper, at $117 million, but Shoebridge pointed out it has problematic westerly wind issues for launching and retrieving boats at bases and is way too shallow at places, only 1 to 2 metres of water at low tide instead of the needed 5.5m.

To keep the Crown engaged, and presumably to save some face for the new minister, the Wynyard Point option - which also carries about $50m of cost to the council to move or change other users - was included in the Auckland Council's resolution yesterday. Goff told councillors "a third party" wanted that option explored.

Councillors voted unanimously to support Team NZ's defence of the Cup in Auckland. They voted unanimously for the three-wharf cluster option. And they voted to eliminate the big Halsey Wharf extension from further consideration.

Goff and the council chief executive Stephen Town will now negotiate with the government and Team NZ and a final council decision on which option to seek resource consent for will be made next month. A planning decision would be expected by July next year and the preferred, three-wharf option would take about 10 months to build, 

One councillor, John Watson, voiced his concern "and it has not been alleviated" about the fact a 73 metre wharf extension remains the option. "I'm encouraged by the attitude of Team NZ..... but there's a danger of penny-wise and pound-foolish in this."

In answer to questions on what would happen if the event attracts fewer than seven challenges, or more, Shoebridge said Team NZ was "reasonably confident, very confident" of making its mooted number. The problems in San Francisco two Cup events ago, where provision was made for up to 15 teams and only four showed up, were not going to be repeated.

Shoebridge listed four teams that were highly likely - Team NZ itself, Luna Rossa from Italy, the New York Yacht Club and the UK's Ben Ainslie Racing. He said Sweden's Artemis was "sitting on the fence" but Team NZ had also been approached by "two more from the USA  and two more from Italy."

If more than the targeted eight bases were needed, Team NZ did not envisage more council or public spending. "It would be a nice problem to have. There's a provision that we can [make it] first-come, first served." Another solution might be putting two single boat teams together in a double boat base.

He said the course was likely to be off Takapuna, Cheltenham and Rangitoto. "It will be similar to last time, but we have to take into consideration the performance of this new boat."

Goff wrapped matters up. "I want to thank Team New Zealand for the flexibility that they have shown. I know they have listened to the public and a wide range of groups and they have said ‘Okay, we are prepared to drop that option and focus on Wynyard Basin.’"

He hoped the government would come up with at least half the costs. "I really hope they will come to the party. I don't want to create false expectations on your part about their generosity."

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