Kiwis flock to America's Cup, virus rules go overboard

·3-min read

Aucklanders skirted coronavirus restrictions to pack waterfront bars and cheer on Team New Zealand on the opening day of the America's Cup Wednesday.

Just four days after New Zealand's largest city exited hard lockdown following a stubborn cluster of community Covid-19 cases, maskless revellers poured into the downtown Viaduct precinct.

While the crowds were not huge, they were well above the 100-person limit mandated under the government's Level Two virus restrictions currently in force for the city.

Sailing fan Kathleen Brownie, who travelled to Auckland from Hawke's Bay for the occasion, said the atmosphere among the home fans was fantastic.

"I think it's great, we're not really keeping to the limit seriously are we?" she said.

"How often can you see an international event like this in New Zealand? It's amazing, absolutely amazing."

New Zealand has been widely praised for its coronavirus response, recording just 26 deaths in a population of five million.

But after two lockdowns in Auckland over the past six weeks, many seemed determined to put sporting passion ahead of social distancing protocols for once.

Wellingtonian Ricky Rutledge, who had just ended two weeks in compulsory isolation after returning from Colombia, said the excitement was palpable as Kiwis prepared to rekindle their love affair with the America's Cup.

"It's my third day of freedom and I was lucky enough to be in Auckland, so boom," he said.

"I guess it's reduced the numbers and there's been a negative effect (on crowd numbers), but looking around today, you wouldn't know."

- 'Adrenaline up' -

New Zealand first won the America's Cup in 1995 and, much like the Olympics, public interest in the event flares once every four years.

But it is almost non-existent in the meantime, and the global pandemic has inevitably cast a shadow over the 2021 edition.

Many warm-up events were cancelled, team preparations were curtailed and hopes of attracting international visitors were dashed.

Yachting's most prestigious trophy, first contested in 1851, is usually catnip for billionaires but only a few super-yachts were moored in Auckland harbour, well short of the dozens originally expected.

The race, originally due to start on Saturday, was postponed because of the latest outbreak, and most locals were at work when competition got underway late on Wednesday afternoon.

Aucklander Rosie Bosworth said the lockdowns and coronavirus alert level changes had eclipsed the build-up.

"Usually the excitement would be a universal thing throughout the nation, at the moment it's been a bit more subdued," she said.

"It's a shame, given the investment that's gone into the event in general and the fact we can't celebrate it to its fullest (but) given we are in a Covid world, it's not a bad feat."

Auckland's crowd restrictions are expected to be eased by the weekend and Bosworth expected that would result in a huge jump in numbers at the Viaduct.

On the water, events did not go entirely Team NZ's way, with Wednesday's racing ending 1-1 after Italian challenger Luna Rossa bounced back from a first-up loss.

Kelvin Whalley believed it was good for the regatta, saying even Kiwis wanted a competitive series, not the 7-0 Team NZ whitewash many pundits were predicting.

"This is the absolute best thing that could have happened for the event," he said.

"Close racing brings the adrenaline up in the teams and brings their responses up, it encourages support."

Racing in the best-of-13 series resumes on Friday.