BY: JOE WALL
On any given afternoon, Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour is speckled with a dazzling number of sailboats gliding across its azure waters. This daily phenomenon, along with the region’s collective passion for sailing and New Zealand’s international success in competitive racing, makes ‘City of Sails’ a most appropriate nickname for the nation’s largest city.
Kiwis have built and crewed some of the world’s fastest vessels, and New Zealand prides itself on being a nation of sailors. An old Kiwi saying builds upon both the Māori migration from Southeast Asia 1,000 years ago and more recent European settlers: “We’ve all sailed here from somewhere.” To grow up in Aotearoa (‘land of the long white cloud’) is to never be more than an hour from a river, lake or the ocean. Water, simply put, is a constant presence, and childhood and holidays revolve around sailing, kayaking, surfing, jet boating or gathering with friends for a beach ‘barbie’.
Auckland, with two harbors and over 50 beaches, epitomizes the Kiwi abundance of aquatic possibilities. Waitematā Harbour opens up to dozens of small islands east of Auckland that are easily accessed by boat and eventually leads to the Hauraki Gulf with its marine wildlife and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Manukau Harbour, to Auckland’s southwest, opens out into the Tasman Sea but is mostly popular with anglers. For pleasure cruisers it all amounts to a giant playground for fishing and cruising with lots to see and nothing to do – apart from manning the sails and steering into the big blue yonder.
These pleasures aren’t limited to a select few. In the ‘City of Sails’, the numbers tell the story: In 2014, with 135,000 registered yachts and launches and around 60,500 of the country’s 149,900 registered yachtsmen among its residents, Auckland had more yachts per capita than any other city in the world. Several notable yacht clubs and marinas call Waitematā Harbour home, including the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, Westhaven Marina. It’s home to a staggering 2,000 boats, with four yachting clubs and numerous charter boat operators. New Zealand yachtsmen have won more than 60 world titles, including 18 Olympic medals in sailing (eight gold, five silver, five bronze).
None of those titles were more momentous, or did more for the national passion with sailing, than the America’s Cup yacht races. In San Diego in 1995, Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup for the first time and in 2000 became the first team outside the United States to successfully defend its title back in Auckland. A fiercely competitive nation, the leader of the Kiwis charge to victory – Sir Peter Blake – became a household name and entered the annals of Kiwi history. Besides a palpable surge in national pride, the two America’s Cups held in New Zealand brought in over NZ$1 billion to the economy, a transcending figure that made sailing a viable government investment.
Nothing represents this transformative period better than Viaduct Harbour, which went from being a commercial harbor into the center of activity during the Kiwis title defenses of 2000 and 2003. It’s now a thriving hub along Auckland’s waterfront, home to upscale apartments and a variety of popular restaurants and bars, all just steps away from the harbor’s spectacular array of bobbing boats.
The group behind those America’s Cup victories, yachting syndicate Emirates Team New Zealand, also won the 2017 contest, which means the title will once again be defended in Auckland in 2021. The syndicate’s base is the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, making Auckland home to some of the best boat builders and super-yacht refitters in the world. Visitors can get a taste of sea spray upon Waitematā Harbour on one of Emirates Team New Zealand’s retired racing yachts, or learn about the epic journeys and remarkable vessels that have defined New Zealand’s seagoing history at the New Zealand Maritime Museum, located in Hobson Wharf adjacent to Viaduct Harbour.
While sailing has given rise to the city’s fortunes and prestige, Auckland is also within easy reach of spectacular nature and indigenous marine life. The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park has recorded sightings of 22 different whale and dolphin species, and a host of aquatic safari options abound for visitors. Dating back to 1912, Auckland’s historic ferry terminal offers an array of seafaring adventures, from trips to charming Devonport or to wine tours on Waiheke Island.
Despite its overt sporting and financial success, the waters around the ‘City of Sails’ remain fundamental to the soul and sport of the nation and its premier city. When sailing in Waitematā Harbour, it’s tradition to wave at the crew of other boats as they pass. It matters not if the passing vessel is a multi-million-dollar super-yacht or homemade sailing dinghy. Sailors acknowledge one another with a friendly wave, maybe a smile, and move on. It recalls another great Māori saying – “He waka eke noa” – which roughly translates to “We’re all in this waka (boat) together.”