Rum racing in Auckland

Formula One.

After five months and five thousand miles of sailing last cruising season, what exactly do I do in the “off season.” For many cruisers, it’s time for visits back home to the see family and friends, yacht maintenance and repair, land travel, or just hanging out in a marina in some part of the civilized world.

For me, it YACHT RACING! And, the best venue I have found so far is Auckland, New Zealand. If you spend a bit of time on the water with the locals, you understand why they have become the holders of the most valued prize in yacht racing, the America’s Cup.

Even the name for the amateur races suggests a bit of increased potency. There are no “beer can” races here, just “rum races.” Now, rum racing is not a polite, after-work cruise around the buoys on the family racer/cruiser. It is full-on, strip ‘em out, turbo them up, polish the bottom, push ‘em hard, swapping paint at the starts and marks, yacht racing.

If you have the stamina, you could race six days a week, eleven months a year in Auckland. There is a plethora of yacht clubs, one design fleets, sport boats, maxi’s and thousands of people keen to get on the water and compete. The annual racing schedule would overload your PDA. Yacht racing is available to anyone who wants to go and can step aboard a boat and do a bit of work. Most kids in the Auckland area are exposed to sailing and generally start out in a dinghies such as the Optimist or P Class. All the great kiwi sailors started in these littel boats that resmble an El Toro.

Most of the racing yachts are berthed in Westhaven Marina, the largest marina in the Southern Hemisphere. Along the main breakwater between the marina and the Harbour Bridge, are the four main yacht clubs: the Ponsonby Cruising Club, the Richmond Yacht Club, the Victoria Cruising Club, and the prestigious Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, home (temporary) of the America’s Cup.

Before a race, the docks of Westhaven are littered with sail bags, hatch boards, dehumidifiers, sheets, cushions and anything else the is dead weight and not necessary for the race. After the race, it’s social hour in the cockpits of the yachts, with rum and cokes lubricating the conversation as the participants rehash the day’s action on the water.

After the yachts are put away, it’s off to the yacht club for prize giving. What are the prizes? Rum, of course! Most every race has a rum distiller as a sponsor, providing various size bottles as prizes for line-honors and first, second and third on handicap.

At the moment I’m limiting my racing to four or five days a week. Tuesday is “Ladies Night,” so there is a maximum of three guys on board to do the grunt work, but helming is left to the ladies. Tuesdays are spent on my mate Kevin Purcell’s Palmyra, a 1959 Bob Stewart design 34 footer, constructed of wood in 1970. Palmyra is a beauty and is still quite a competitive yacht. The Stewart 34 is the former match racing boat of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and is the boat that stars like Chris Dixon and Brad Butterworth cut their teeth on in the Citizen Watch Match Racing Series from 1979 to 1989.

Thursday afternoon is a round robin of boats for the Ponsonby Cruising Club’s weekly rum race. There are lot’s of Stewart 34’s out on Thursdays, but I have also had the opportunity to crew on everything from a Stewart 40 cruising boat, to a Farr 10-20, an Elliot 12 metre, and Natoika, the 35 foot custom go-faster cruiser belonging to Philippe, who we met in Vanuatu.

The Friday night Squadron rum race attracts some more serious hardware. Every Friday night looks like San Francisco’s Big Boat Series on the Waitemata Harbour. I usually crew on Formula One, a very fast match racer that can best be described as a 51 foot Laser.

Stewart 34 Palmyra.

Every third Saturday, the Ponsonby Cruising Club sponsors a cruising race to one of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf. This is right up our alley so we take Moonshadow on these. So far, we have gotten two bullets (first to finish) and the third race was canceled due to weather. The races are usually destined to a calm anchorage and followed by a Kiwi barbecue ashore and perhaps even a party on board one of the yachts later in the evening.

Every other Sunday, the Stewart 34 Association sponsors a series of windward/leeward (upwind/downwind) races out in the Gulf. This is similar to an America’s Cup course, only shorter and with usually 12 to 18 boats of the same design competing. I have been trimming the main sail on Palmyra for the series and we are currently toward the top of the fleet in standings.

I know it sounds rough, but it keeps me from spending too much time on my own yacht maintenance.

On a sad note, New Zealand is in mourning the loss of its sailing and environmental hero, Sir Peter Blake. It was Sir Peter who helped to put New Zealand in the limelight of the sailing world. Flags flew at half staff and yachts flew black flags with the silver fern yesterday in a show of respect for a man who gave his life working to make the world a better place and attempting protect his crew from a pirate attack in Brazilian waters.

New Zealand is trying to come up with a memorial that is befitting of “Blakey.” Ideas range from changing the name of the Americas Cup/Viaduct Basin, which Sir Peter fought to create as a world class venue for the America’s Cup racing syndicates, to “Sir Peter Blake Basin” to removing the old Bean Rock lighthouse in the Waitemata Harbour and replacing it with a huge statue of Sir Peter holding a light. No matter what they do, it can never be enough for a man who has given so much to New Zealand, to yachting and to the world’s maritime environment.

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