Written by Rebecca Hayter
I started Tuesday, 30 March as a guest on Tawera, Mike Mahoney’s 28-metre superyacht ketch. Soon we were amongst the great surging bows of our competitors in the New Zealand Millennium Cup (28–31 March) as they rode up and over the Bay of Islands swells. Dolphins leapt before them, taking the rare pleasure of waves pushed aside by hulls displacing up to 150 tonnes.
I ended the day dressed as a chicken. More later on that ridiculous situation.
Suffice to say, the New Zealand Millennium Cup is the South Pacific’s longest running superyacht regatta and a favourite on the international superyacht circuit. It debuted in New Zealand for America’s Cup 2000 and this year was the 15th edition. Organised by the New Zealand Millennium Cup Committee and NZ Marine Export Group, under the auspices of the Russell Boating Club, it’s a long way from the usual venues of superyacht regattas – thinking Palma de Majorca, St Tropez and St Barts; something more rustic than grand.
But the racing is always top quality, with racing apps to determine courses and starting procedures, and former America’s Cup race director Harold Bennett in charge on the water.
With owner Mike Mahoney at the helm, Tawera has entered five New Zealand Millennium Cup events and won three. Former America’s Cup skipper Chris Dickson was calling tactics and INEOS Team UK grinder Tim Carter was trimming mainsheet. Dickson squinted his famous icy blues at the clouds overhead and made clever observations like: “Bit of blue sky. Might pull it to the right a bit.”
He was talking about the breeze.
The previous day, Tawera, designed by Ron Holland and built by Alloy Yachts in 1995, had finished second by four seconds. Ouch.
In the Mark Foy start, the 1954 schooner Aschanti IV crossed the line first near the committee boat. Built by Burmester, the 34.8 metre Aschanti IV looked like an armada of one as she flew about 10 sails in a pattern of billowing triangles. Her graceful bowsprit took a high line across the bay, heading for the first mark and held the lead to the second.
Catalina, the white 45m Dubois design, built by the Dutch yard of Vitters, followed five minutes later. Tawera started next. The gennakers blossomed as big as tennis courts and even though I was a mere journalist amongst professional sailors, I was given a Very Important Job: to push one of three buttons on demand: ‘genoa in’, ‘genoa out’, or ‘winch’ to spin the giant primary winch as the genoa trimmer sheeted on.
Sassafras, the 34.2 metre dark blue classic from Royal Huisman of Holland, started five minutes after us, followed by Miss Silver, a 36.2 metre sloop also built in 1995 by Alloy Yachts.
I think someone had to tell me to stop gawping as Miss Silver, with her gentle swoop of Dubois styling, took inside rights at the mark. We were both carrying gennakers and suddenly the mandatory 40 metre separation zone didn’t seem so big – after all, it’s barely more than a boat length.
Onboard Tawera, boat captain Greg Yeo stood at the stern to measure the distance between boats with the Pantaenius Rangefinder. These were loaned to all competitors as part of the safety regime. Throughout the racing, it was mandatory for boats in close racing to advise their intentions to tack, gybe or call for water via VHF.
The second lap of the race was going well until the snap shackle on Tawera’s gennaker halyard opened – just as the photographers’ helicopter arrived overhead to capture the moment. It was all hands to the foredeck to grab a hectare or two of silken sailcloth as Dickson marshalled us to haul it in.
It didn’t help our chances but Mahoney was philosophical. “With these boats, the loads are so big you don’t get an orange light if something goes wrong,” he says. “So you’ve just got to be on your game.”
Prior to the event, the race’s handicappers and competitors, with help from Offshore Racing Congress (ORC), developed a new Performance Curve Scoring system for superyacht racing. It takes into account the exact wind experienced by each yacht, on each leg of the course, to produce the fairest handicapping for boats of different sizes and sail configurations. But, in another Mahoney observation, the boats are so different, a perfect handicapping system is hard to find. “It’s Like racing tractors,” he jokes.
Sassafras took line honours in both races of the day, but Miss Silver maintained the overall lead after day two. Racing was abandoned the third day due to lack of wind. Instead, the fleet headed to Motuarohia Island where crew swung from halyards and dived from bow sprits in the company of dolphins. The event and its sponsors had a keen emphasis on maintaining a clean environment; the dolphins’ participation seemed to endorse it.
At the prize-giving at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, Miss Silver was crowned the 2021 winner, having won three of three races. The captain of Sassafras thanked the New Zealand Millennium Cup organisers for once again putting on an amazing regatta, “which in my opinion is still the best in the world,” he said. “Thank you to the two boats that pilgrimaged from all over the world to come to New Zealand, to be a part of the event. It wouldn’t be the New Zealand Millennium Cup without international boats, so thank you.”
The owner of Catalina said he now has the absolute best opinion of New Zealand. “This event was thoroughly enjoyable: low key, great company and I will be remembering this for a long time to come.”
It was a sentiment echoed by his captain, Sean Whitney: “The spirit of this regatta is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
The day finished with the Tawera Rum Barrel Skiff Race, in which each superyacht ran two teams of two men and two women. Mahoney had been involved in the build of the traditional timber St Ayles skiffs. For some reason, Tawera’s crew, including me, raced dressed as chickens.
Catalina’s team started strong in the first heat until a crew member ‘caught a crab’ with the oar and tumbled backwards. Aschanti IV overcame questionable technique to be the first back to the beach. Team Go Hard lost an oar in the finals, while Tawera’s Fowl Play powered ahead to take out the competition.
“That’s the whole vibe of the regatta,” Mahoney says. “Yes, the racing’s important but it’s just as important to have a few beers afterwards. I think we left a bit on the track, but the other boats probably felt like that too. It’s good to have a nice balance of sailing the boat as well as we can, but we like to have a laugh along the way. Miss Silver got around the corners nicely, better than we did.”
Just before the skiff race on Russell Beach, I realised this chick needed a glass of water. I wandered over The Strand and into the Duke of Marlborough. A man was laughing at me.
I asked him: “Have you heard the one about the chicken that walked into a bar?”
“No,” he replied, “but I’d love to know why you crossed the road.”
Planning is already underway for New Zealand Millennium Cup in the Bay of Islands, 14–17 February 2022.
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