While you were sleeping: Ocean racers zip into Auckland

As Auckland puts on another electrifying dead-of-the-night finish in the Volvo Ocean Race, and a three-week waterfront party begins, Suzanne McFadden asks whether this is a dress rehearsal for the 2021 America’s Cup.

Long before the fleet of round-the-world boats stormed into Auckland en masse and in darkness overnight, Tom Mayo and Grant Calder must have known they were onto a sure-fire winner.

The duo - port directors of the Auckland stopover in the Volvo Ocean Race - know there are some things about this race, in its tenth visit to the City of Sails, that simply never change.

For one, you can always rely on legions of fans. As soon as the three leading yachts in this leg from Hong Kong – AkzoNobel, Scallywag and Turn the Tide on Plastics - rounded North Cape at daybreak to begin the tricky descent down the east coast, a local fishing boat began the supporters flotilla that would build during the day.

Then, Auckland always produces a thrilling tussle, right down to the wire. And this was one of the closest yet – with five of the six boats locked in a drag race to the finish-line. Ultimately, AkzoNobel - with Kiwis Brad Farrand and Justin Ferris on board - nudged out Scallywag by a mere two minutes to grab line honours after they'd gruellingly match-raced all the way down the coast. Blair Tuke's MAPFRE stole third place in a midnight raid, to keep hold of the overall race lead.

And you can always guarantee that, day or night, throngs of Aucklanders will line the Viaduct Harbour to welcome the stressed and shattered sailors – who won’t have slept for the last 48 hours of this 6100-mile on-the-water chess match. 

This time, it was the middle of the night - a curse that Mayo and Calder fear they bring to this race. “In seven years, Grant and I have never seen a day-time arrival of the leading boats. No matter where in the world we are, they always finish at night. I think we’re jinxing it,” Mayo laughs.

But a homecoming in the dark never seems to put a dampener on the stopover. Mayo and Calder - also the name of their Auckland-based event business - expect half a million visitors will pour into the race village in the Viaduct over the next three weeks. Within 48 hours of the village opening on Saturday, 66,325 people had strolled through. “And that was without the boats,” Calder says.

“It’s a definite step-up from previous stopovers, especially for the opening weekend – even though it was a pretty busy entertainment weekend in Auckland too. I think the attraction is that it’s a family-friendly, free event.”

AkzoNobel, with two Kiwis on board, wins the fraught battle into Auckland overnight. Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

New Zealand’s success in the America’s Cup may have something to do with an influx of interest, too.  

“I think the America’s Cup has made it much more relevant,” says Mayo. In the summer of 2012, when the Volvo race returned to Auckland after a nine-year hiatus, and Mayo first won the contract to direct the stopover, his strategy was to re-educate New Zealanders about round-the-world racing. “Now they know what the Volvo Ocean Race is, they’re looking at what the comparison is with the America’s Cup – between the site, the boat and the sailors.”

There’s no doubt the event also serves as a precursor to running the 2021 America’s Cup – albeit on a smaller scale. “And for any major event, for the city to have hosted events with a similar stature, only adds to it,” says Mayo, who went with Calder to the America’s Cup in Bermuda last year.

“When you host an event like the Cup for the first time, everyone says ‘It was awesome, but we could have done it better’. We’re fortunate that ATEED and the government have been very supportive of this event over the years, and it will benefit them now as the America’s Cup comes into play.” (Of the $7m budget for the Auckland stopover event, Auckland Council provides $2.7m, while the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment puts up $1.5m; the rest is left to the promoters to raise, through sponsor partnerships).

But, of course, so far it hasn’t been that simple, as the convoluted battle over the America’s Cup bases continues, with still no promise that the event will be held in Auckland.

One thing from Bermuda that Mayo and Calder took on board – as something they wouldn’t be recommending – was making people pay to get into the America’s Cup race village.

“In Bermuda, the taxpayer and ratepayer had to pay into major event funds, but then they were asked to pay up to $US100 to go in. With an event of this nature, free entry is key,” Mayo says. That's also Emirates Team Zealand boss Grant Dalton’s wish for 2021.

Calder predicts the America’s Cup could attract as many people to Auckland’s waterfront as the 2011 Rugby World Cup did, where over a million people came to “Party Central” on Queen’s Wharf over the six weeks of the regatta.

“This is the longest stopover on the round-the-world route, because teams trust New Zealanders to look after their boats."

- Tom Mayo

This is the third stopover in this race that Mayo and Calder have organised – having run the Melbourne “pit-stop” over the New Year, and the last port-of-call, Hong Kong.

“It was the first time the race has ever been to Hong Kong, and it became Hong Kong’s largest sports event,” Mayo says. “It was showcasing to the world that marine sporting endeavours are a big part of Hong Kong’s future.” 

The event, held on the old runway at Kai Tak – once ranked one of the most dangerous airports in the world – attracted 103,000 people. “It was different level to here, because you were having to educate people on what a boat is.”

Hong Kong became more challenging when it was overshadowed by tragedy – Vestas 11th Hour Racing collided with a fishing boat 30 miles from the end of leg four, resulting in the death of a fisherman. The damaged boat was withdrawn from the next two legs, and shipped to Auckland for repairs. The work is being done in Hobsonville by Yachting Developments – the business owned by the family of Bianca Cook, a sailor on Turn the Tide on Plastics.

Of the 90 days that sailors spend on land during this eight-month circumnavigation, Mayo and Calder have been responsible for organising 50 of them. So, if either of the port directors needs a little break during this stopover, look first in the kids’ sandpit.

Mayo - a former athlete (a sub-four minute miler who ran in the 1500m final at the 2002 Commonwealth Games), artist and rehydration drink entrepreneur - wanted to make sure there was plenty of entertainment for kids, now that he is the father of an almost six-month-old little girl. Calder, who’s been working with Mayo since 2008, is also a relatively new dad, with an 18-month-old son.

“Yep, you’ll find me in the sandpit,” Mayo laughs. “We designed lots of things for kids to do – ride mini-diggers, play mini-putt, climb through a race boat, have a go on a grinder, or go to the cinema.” Adults are not ignored; for the first time, the public can walk through a working boatyard, watching the best of New Zealand’s legendary marine industry carrying out maintenance on the V065 race fleet.

“This is the longest stopover on the round-the-world route, because teams trust New Zealanders to look after their boats,” says Mayo. The yachts will be hauled out in the next few days so work can begin before they return to the Southern Ocean, in the leg leaving Auckland on March 18. There’s also an in-port race on the Waitemata Harbour on March 10.

There are 200 people paid to run the event on the ground, plus 400 volunteers; Mayo proudly points to an 85% return rate for those who’ve volunteered at previous Volvo events.

This is the third Auckland stopover that Mayo and Calder have organised. They also delivered the 2010 world rowing championships on Lake Karapiro. With their sporting experience, and familiarity with the Auckland waterfront, they seem obvious candidates to run the 2021 America’s Cup. 

Neither will be drawn on the subject. “Right now, we just want a holiday,” Mayo says. “We’ve been three years’ working on the Volvo events.  

“There’s lot of feasibility work and government work that we’re doing on different events in the future. Cities come to us and say, 'Could you do the world’s darts, snooker or football event?' So we go through the process with them, and then decide whether we deliver it, like we have here, or just stop at the consultancy role. But, before we do anything else, we just need to look after ourselves and give ourselves a break.”

Perhaps in a much bigger sandpit - on an island with no sailboats in sight.   

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