Cup victory sparks sailing boom

Sailing clubs are bulging at the seams following Team New Zealand's America's Cup victory. Suzanne McFadden discovers a sport riding a wave following the triumph in Bermuda.

On the lower reaches of the Waimakariri River, just around the corner from the North Canterbury coast, a band of pirates are earning their sea legs.

With their Jolly Roger flags and fake moustaches, they are a miscellaneous bunch – some are still at primary school, others are husband and wife; a couple of them are in their retirement years. But all of the “Vikings”, as the newbies are called, share the same goal – to learn how to sail.

The 30 who signed up for the learn to sail programme at the Waimakariri Sailing & Power Boat Club this summer know all about the club’s most famous alumna, Olympic rowing gold medallist and Emirates Team New Zealand cyclor Joe Sullivan. He and his brother Brayden were taught to sail on the river in the 1990s.

“On the back of Joe’s success and the America’s Cup victory, we’re trying to keep the momentum going,” says Sam Jones, one of two local dads whose decision to take on the learn to sail initiative has rejuvenated the club. Before Christmas, they’d signed up 30 new members and are expecting 30 more over the next couple of months.

The pirates of Waimakariri are part of a revolution – a new wave of New Zealanders wanting to learn to sail. Many of them have been inspired by Team New Zealand’s reclaiming of the Auld Mug last June. The surge of interest also happened in the wake of our past Cup victories (Olympic gold medallist Jo Aleh asked her parents if she could give sailing a go after watching Team NZ win in 1995). And it’s a phenomenon that clubs – well accustomed to riding the peaks and troughs of popularity - are keen to capitalise on.

The pirates of the Waimakariri. Photo: supplied

At last count, roughly 30,000 New Zealanders were members of yacht clubs throughout the country. But that number is on the rise, and learn to sail programmes are full to the gunwales.

Last month, the annual Sir Peter Blake Regatta at Auckland’s Torbay drew a record 492 competitors in 460 boats – making it probably the largest centreboard regatta in the world.

While it’s great news for the sport, it also presents headaches for the yacht clubs. “Some clubs are bulging at the seams,” says David Abercrombie, CEO of Yachting New Zealand. “Some aren’t able to take any more sailors.

“It comes down to are there enough boats for people to learn to sail in? Are there enough coaches to teach them? And then there’s the health and safety issues on the water. A lot of clubs don’t have the storage facilities to keep any more boats, which puts greater pressure on those clubs.”

Waimakariri are fortunate. While their site at Kairaki Beach is also full to bursting, they can flow over onto the section next door, where a house badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake was red-zoned. (Jones believes the earthquakes have played a part in the sailing surge: “I think people are looking for things to do; [the quakes] consumed people, and now they’re getting their lives back.”)

But clubs like Wakatere Boating Club on Auckland’s Narrowneck Beach don’t have many options. The club is like its own island, bounded by the beach and the road, and commodore Simon Probert says squeezing in the growing membership is becoming “a big challenge”.

“We’ll have to be clever in how we grow our footprint. We’re currently looking for funding to build more locker space,” he says. “We’ve also had to take on semi-permanent staff instead of relying on our volunteers.”

The club has 490 members – 150 of those have joined in the past year. On any given day these summer holidays, there are three racecourses chockful of boats on the Hauraki Gulf waters in front of the club.

“We’ve been growing for the last two years, and it’s been crazy. People don’t say directly that they’re wanting to sail because of the America’s Cup, but it’s got to have something to do with it,” say Probert.

He believes Wakatere’s focus on both junior and senior classes of boats – and the new craze of foiling windsurfing - has also bolstered its growth. “We’re now the biggest OK dinghy club in the world, and we’re holding the 2019 world championships here. Our adult learn-to-sail classes are completely full within 10 days of advertising them.”

Because it’s not just kids who are wanting to learn. The holders of the America’s Cup, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, started up adult learn-to-sail courses just last summer. “In New Zealand we just learn [to sail] at a young age, or the Kiwi attitude is to just jump in a boat and learn that way. Now everyone is getting more safety conscious,” says the Squadron’s sailing director Laurie Jury.

This year, the number of adult pupils has doubled, well exceeding the expectations of Hayden Porter, the Squadron’s general manager. “We didn’t start it up as a money-maker. We saw it as a way to introduce people to the sport, and to the club,” he says. Club membership has swelled to 3000 since the arrival of the world’s oldest sports trophy.

“The America’s Cup has no doubt put sailing in the spotlight, which reignites the interest of people who’ve thought about learning to sail, and see it as a good excuse to finally do it.”

The majority of adult students are in their late-30s to mid-50s: “They’re the mid-lifers; a number are now going out and buying boats too.” Some are international visitors, drawn to learn at the home of the Auld Mug during their vacation.

The courses attract an equal number of males and females, but it’s the women sailors who’ve produced “the real success stories”, Porter says. “A group of girlfriends learned together, then campaigned a yacht in the keelboat series, before purchasing a share in an MRX [yacht],” he says. “Another woman is now doing a solo sail around the North Island.”

A month-long international sailing camp, currently running at the Squadron – the only course in the world teaching young sailors the art of foiling - was oversubscribed. Thirty sailors from around the world applied, but only 10 could be accepted. “Young sailors really wanted to come down and sail at the home of the America’s Cup; that’s made a massive difference to getting that programme off the ground,” Jury says.

And if you already live here, the chance to sail on the same waters as Team NZ has got to be a drawcard. It certainly was for nine-year-old Leo Brown, who began learning to sail six months ago.

He was initially lured into the sport by his best mate Logan, who encouraged him to join a learn to sail holiday programme at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club, on the lip of the Waitemata Harbour. But there was something else that whet his appetite.

“During the America’s Cup I woke up at 6am every morning, and went straight to the tv while my dad made me breakfast. I really liked watching it, and I just can’t wait until it’s raced here,” Leo says.

He’s already met his hero, Team NZ helmsman Peter Burling, and taken advice from former skipper Sir Russell Coutts. He’s quickly picking up the skills of the sport in his new Optimist named Silver Surfer – the same kind of 2.3m yacht that launched Burling’s career.

“For my birthday I could choose either a PlayStation4 or an Optimist. Most kids would choose technology,” Leo says matter-of-factly. “But I wanted a boat.” He’s already eyeing up the classes above him – the two-handed RS Feva and 29er skiff.

Leo Brown is one of hundreds of young Kiwis who have been inspired to take up sailing. Photo: supplied

Keeping young sailors like Leo on the water is an ongoing challenge for Yachting NZ. “The really big thing for us is retaining kids in the sport,” says Abercrombie. “It’s still a challenge for all sports, with kids dropping out in the later teen years. But we know that our kids need to have a good experience at their club, and a good coaching experience, to carry on sailing.”

Seeing sailor numbers begin to grow in 2016, Yachting NZ appointed a coach development manager, Gareth Moore, who travels the country ensuring every club has a good coach at the helm of their sailing programmes. Regional youth clinics aim to keep the top young sailors engaged in the sport, while the Aon Fast Track programme accelerates talented youth sailors towards Olympic campaigns.

So can you measure the influence that the America’s Cup will have on grassroots sailing in New Zealand over the next four years? Abercrombie isn’t sure. “Whether we get any rub off from it has yet to be seen,” he says.

He expects the radical new AC75 foiling monohull will pique new interest, and the infrastructure put down to host the Cup could be a legacy for the sport. And he also hopes Cup fever may help Yachting NZ finally establish an $8.5 million national high performance centre in Auckland.

For the last seven years, Yachting NZ has waged a battle to find a home for the Community Marine Hub. Having lost their bid to build on the Takapuna Beach campground land back in 2016, they’ve been investigating a new site at Gulf Harbour, on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. Abercrombie hopes New Zealand’s success at the pinnacle of the sport will encourage funders to invest in the facility.

Back at the Waimakariri Sailing & Power Boat Club, the pirates aren’t focused on Olympic gold. Sam Jones, a South Island Young 88 champion, has tried to play down the racing aspect with his learn to sail students.

“We didn’t want it to be all about racing, so the pirate days are about searching for treasure [in the form of an iceblock],” Jones says. “We’ve really tried to emphasise the adventure side of sailing because, for many, that’s what they end up doing.”

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