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Gladwell's Line: Emerging from the Lockdowns..America's Cup after Cyclone Covid

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 6 May 05:11 PDT 6 May 2020
AC75 Defiant testing operations in Pensacola, Florida. © Will Ricketson

For sailing fans, the first sign of the end of the lockdowns was the sight of Emirates Team New Zealand trialling their test boat Te Kahu, last Thursday and again on Saturday. ETNZ is functioning as commercial operation going about its regular business. Construction of the race boat restarted on Tuesday.

The second piece of great news is that New York Yacht Club's Challenger American Magic is about to be loaded for Auckland, and will arrive in early June. Ironically Defiant may beat Te Aihe to be first to arrive in New Zealand - it will be close.

American Magic's "pivotal" decision, as Executive Director Terry Hutchinson describes the move, puts increased certainty into the America's Cup in Auckland which is a very strong and positive signal to the sailing world, and New Zealand generally.

What happens next is largely in the hands of the Coalition Government, who now have to pull/assist New Zealand out of the lockdown applied six weeks ago after a couple of days notice. In the America's Cup context, that means finding a way for the teams at least to be able to enter New Zealand, undergo a 14 day supervised quarantine period, and then get operational and sailing.

Next is what happens, if anything, with officials, media and fans.

Fortunately, the America's Cup operates largely outside the ambit of World Sailing and can make or change its rules subject to the provisions of the Protocol.

Providing the teams are allowed into Auckland, at a pinch the event could be run using New Zealanders only - in the same way the New York Yacht Club ran the event for around 100 years. Or in the connected world, with a Race Director supervising by video and simulator, and Int Jury and Arb Panels conducting Hearings by Zoom. Don't forget that most of the umpiring decisions in the last two Cups have been made by officials working in a simulator booth ashore. New Zealand does have a good 5G network - why not use it and minimise any latency issues?

The TV and media staff could also be sourced entirely from within New Zealand, and have produced world-class coverage in the past - including the Sky TV coverage of the 2019 Hyundai World Championships.

International journalists would have to cover the event remotely (as many already do) with interactive Media Conferences being run using Zoom or similar technology.

That is a bare-bones event - but one that can be guaranteed to take place. Currently, the New Zealand Prime Minister is saying that the closed borders will be in effect "for a long time to come". However, legislation is expected that will create legal mechanisms for controlled entry through the New Zealand borders. That aspect is a work in progress, but overall the situation is becoming more flexible.

Obviously, there are plenty of enhancements that can be added to the 36th America's Cup to bring it up to the standard that fans and media expect, but the sailing world can be assured that as matters currently stand the event will proceed. It will not follow the path of other events which have been cancelled/postponed, including the Tokyo Olympics without any real certainty that those regattas will take place even on their new dates.

For sure, running a bare-bones America's Cup will not give the economic benefits to New Zealand that were expected, but that is part of the collateral damage of COVID-19. Again it comes down to what the Government of the day will allow (remembering that there is a General Election in mid-September), as to how New Zealand will benefit from the America's Cup.

Sailing out of the COVID Alerts

The short-term chaos of COVID will propel the sport of Sailing through a series of changes that would have taken forever otherwise.

The priority is to get the sport restarted and stage as many of the postponed events as possible and practical.

There looks like there will be four 'bubbles' in the sailing world when the alert brakes come off.

The first will be the "club bubble" where travel restrictions still apply - maybe limited to staying within your region. That means that club sailing should be able to start up, and provincial regattas like Auckland Championships should be able to be held between Auckland sailors.

The second "national bubble" will occur when all travel restrictions within New Zealand have been lifted, which will mean that national championships can be recommenced.

Then it would seem that a "Trans-Tasman bubble" will come into play quite quickly to get at least some level of tourism running in New Zealand. For sailors in both countries, this is an opportunity to reset the way sailing run and go back to what used to be known as "inter-dominion" competition. The advantage of this is that there are some very good sailors on either side of the Tasman who deserve the opportunity to be able to compete against each other - ideally using charter boats with their own sails - which gets costs down, and increases the opportunities for competition.

There is a solid line of thinking that before taking on the best in Europe - you should be able to win at an Interdominion level. Of course, this level of competition is one down from the top, but is infinitely more affordable and should be a good option for sailors trying to run a university degree alongside a manageable sailing experience which is not too expensive in time or dollars.

Then there is the "World bubble" or a return to the international regatta and world championships conducted pre-March 2020. There is no knowing when air travel and more basically when national quarantine restrictions will end. The identification of a vaccine will not be the end of it, as governments and particularly those who place health outcomes way higher than economics will decide at a national level how high their inbound visitor bar will be.

Understanding these situations is vital to reshaping sailing so the sport can get functioning again on the water.

Short term, there will have to be some adjustments made to accommodate social distancing. Rather than all carrying some new gadget or phone app, that may mean that people go sailing off the beach or ramp without congregating in yacht clubs - and revert to getting changed in the boat park, have a shower at home, and launching and retrieving your boat without the assistance of others. It is not that hard.

The benefit of the lockdown over the past six weeks is that people have been propelled through a period of change and practical adoption of technology that wasn't going to happen quickly, and many wouldn't move outside their comfort zone.

Hopefully, most will realise that this new connected world is not too bad. In fact, it has a lot of possibilities.

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