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Celestial navigation, New Zealand, and the America's Cup

by Tourism New Zealand 12 Mar 15:17 NZDT
The wonders of Auckland © Ella Mueller

Celestial navigation is the traditional technique of finding your way around the ocean. To put it simply - by looking at the sun, stars, moon and planets, one is able to find latitude whilst out at sea.

New Zealand is a nation of born sailors, with sailing weaved intrinsically through its culture. Aotearoa was settled by Maori ancestors who circumnavigated the Pacific Ocean using only the stars and constellations to find their way.

Aotearoa is a place that invites the experience of sailing, boasting over 15,000km of coastline, and many islands. The country’s location in one of the planet’s major wind belts, and its seas are good for all kinds of sailing – from cruising in sheltered waters, to ocean-voyaging.

With such a special connection to sailing, it becomes obvious why hosting this America’s cup is such a symbolic and significant event for New Zealand. Hosting the event allows the Kiwis to share their rich and cultural voyaging history with the world.

In April 2011, a double-hulled ocean voyaging waka set sail with the mission to help revitalise traditional waka culture and knowledge in the pacific. The sail took place to promote awareness to the oceans, pollution and to climate change. Haunui was one of seven waka that set sail from Auckland, with the aim of reviving ancient navigational systems. It sailed 30,000 nautical miles over 18 months to North America and back through the Pacific Islands.

Master Navigator, Jack Thatcher said, “Voyaging has enabled me to see the world through the eyes of my ancestors, and what I have seen is a science that is ageless, a science that has sustained a deliberate exploration of an environment that was just as vast to my ancestors as space is to us today.” Celestial navigation eventually led to sailing competitions.Competitive sailing was popular amongst local people and immigrants from the 1840s. At first, competitions were between working boats (fishing, cargo) but boatbuilders began building craft specifically to race. Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour became a magnet for yachting and has since been a place where generations of sailors have honed their skills.

Celestial Navigator, Piripi Smith* said, “In terms of the last couple of America’s Cups there is an obvious link to the double-hulled sailing vessels that our Pacific ancestors voyaged throughout Te Moana nui a Kiwa. The technology is cutting edge these days, but even in the AC75s of this America’s cup with the use of the foiling arms as stabilisers as well as the double hulls in the previous Americas cups and the SailGP series, the fundamental concept of stabilisation from the multi hulls or multiple sweep (steering paddles) were mastered by our ancestors who only had natural materials to use. It’s great to see how advanced these vessels have become.

“For thousands of years of ancestors voyaged and sailed throughout the Pacific, discovering all the islands and inhabiting most of them, trade routes were opened up, both waka and sailing were in our blood.

“According to scientists in the 1600s a number of Tsunami were responsible for wiping out most if not all of the voyaging waka, and things had to be built from scratch again. This is more than likely the time when long ocean voyaging for Maori stopped. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when Maori started to sail again traditionally, the late Hekenukumai Busby was responsible for reviving this matauranga Maori, with the help of others throughout the Pacific. The whakapapa of sailing and voyaging is strong again now in Aotearoa, and it’s great to see the other end of the technology spectrum with these amazing AC75s fly through the water, the link to these modern vessels lies with the genius and ability of our ancestors.”

*Piripi Smith is a traditional navigator under the tutelage of Jack Thatcher.

The America's Cup course 101, especially designed for your non-nautical Kiwi friends

The America’s Cup dates back to 1851, making it the oldest trophy in international sport, predating the modern Olympic games by 45 years.

If you’re interested in sailing as a hobby or enjoy friendly competition, we’re giving you an America’s Cup 101.

Where is America’s Cup being hosted?

The 36th America’s Cup is being hosted in New Zealand. Auckland is no stranger to hosting the America’s Cup, going through the same preparations for the 2000 defence with Team New Zealand, and again in 2003. A sailing and America’s Cup-crazy public can be relied upon to turn out in full force to support the racing.

Auckland is one of the most storied venues of the Cup. It sits with only a handful of global locations that have ever hosted an America’s Cup in the past 30 years alongside Newport, Fremantle, San Diego, Valencia, San Francisco and Bermuda.

Renowned as the “City of Sails”, the city’s waterfront has been quickly transforming to become the hub of America’s Cup action for the event in 2021 and to leave a long-term legacy for Aucklanders and visitors. Auckland hosts some of the world’s leading sailing brands, suppliers to all spectrums of the sport, from superyachts, to high performance race yachts, dinghies and sailors themselves, whose services continue to be sought world-wide.

Where it all began…

The competition’s roots date back to when a syndicate of businessmen from New York sailed the yacht America across the Atlantic Ocean for the World’s Fair in England. The schooner won a race around the Isle of Wight against a fleet of British yachts to claim the £100 Cup.

As America passed the finishing line, marked by the Royal Yacht, and saluted by dipping its ensign three times, Queen Victoria asked one of her attendants to tell her who was in second place. “Your Majesty, there is no second,” came the reply. The four key words of that phrase are still the best description of the America’s Cup, and how it represents a singular pursuit of excellence.

Throughout the event’s history, the prestige associated with the America's Cup has attracted not only the world's top sailors and yacht designers but also royalty, politicians, captains of industry, wealthy entrepreneurs and sponsors. A test not only of sailing, boat and sail design, but also of fundraising and management, it has attracted the likes of tea merchant Sir Thomas Lipton, Harold S. Vanderbilt, and aviation pioneer Sir T.O.M. Sopwith, then later, brewing and real estate mogul Alan Bond, the Aga Khan, and media mogul Ted Turner.

The 36th America’s Cup

Today’s contest is no different, and the allure of winning the Auld Mug is as strong as ever. For this 36th edition, the Defender and the Challenger of Record collaborated to develop the Protocol and Class Rules, and the teams (known as Challengers), each backed by a qualified yacht club, subsequently entered.

Patrizio Bertelli (ITA) of the iconic Italian fashion house PRADA, returns in his fifth attempt at victory, as Challenger of Record with Luna Rossa PRADA Pirelli. PRADA is also the title sponsor of the PRADA 36th America’s Cup Auckland New Zealand, the PRADA America’s Cup World Series Auckland New Zealand, the PRADA Christmas Race Auckland New Zealand and of the Challenger Selection Series, the eponymous PRADA Cup.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe makes his Cup debut, supporting Ben Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK, in their combined effort to return the Cup to its original home, the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding many challenges, Britain has never won the America’s Cup.

The America’s Cup is - without a doubt - the most difficult trophy in sport to win. In the 170 years since that first race off England, only four nations have won it: the United States; Australia; New Zealand; and Switzerland. For some perspective, consider that there had been nine contests for the America’s Cup before the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896.

The current Defenders, Emirates Team New Zealand are proof of this. Cup fever struck the small South Pacific nation in 1995 when Team New Zealand, led by Sir Peter Blake, eclipsed the field, becoming the second non-American challenger in history to win the Cup. The Kiwis defended in style in 2000 on home-waters, only to relinquish the trophy in 2003 to Alinghi of Switzerland.

Round the world yachtsman Grant Dalton took over the team leadership, but it took the new-look Emirates Team New Zealand more than a decade and three consecutive campaigns to finally pull off ‘the impossible’, being agonizingly close to victory in San Francisco (2013), and then finally successful in Bermuda (2017).

They returned home as heroes to a Cup-crazed Kiwi public, and immediately turned their attention to the development of a revolutionary new class of race yacht and hosting their defence in Auckland in 2021.

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