Racing in a marine mammal sanctuary

Published on March 24th, 2024

While the New Zealand venue of Christchurch appears to have all ideal features for a SailGP event, Lyttelton Harbour has one massive negative. The Hector’s dolphin are well known inhabitants to the natural amphitheater, and high-speed collisions with marine mammals is bad for everybody.

SailGP was there a year ago, and there were problems. The league shifted to Auckland this season, but when unable to secure a suitable venue, they returned to Christchurch for the March 23-24 event. Problems returned when the first day was cancelled due to dolphin sightings, which is an expensive loss for the league.

But when you have ten F50 teams with 40 underwater blades slicing through the water, operating with an abundance of caution seems like a good plan, unless you are SailGP CEO Russell Coutts who distributed this statement after racing was cancelled:

SailGP operates alt over the world, and no doubt there are marine mammals in the water in all of the locations we race. We’ve never had an incident in 35 events.

Our people and our athletes care deeply about marine conservation. In addition to our normal marine mammal protocols, SailGP has had this extreme marine mammal management plan forced upon us in Lyttetton, demanded by the Department of Conservation, Ecan and Ngāti Wheke for this event. Otherwise, SailGP would not be permitted to race. Other harbor users, including commercial users, are not subject to such protocols.

In particular Guy Harris, the harbormaster, has been extremely restrictive in prohibiting practice for our international teams, including this morning where they were desperately seeking his approval to allow them much-needed time on the water. He refused without giving any reasons. Earlier in the week, he also stated to me that because SailGP is a commercial entity, other non-commercial entities and views have priority.

Unfortunately, yesterday was another example of there being almost no balance in the decision making – another example of New Zealand being handcuffed by unprecedented layers of bureaucracy and red tape.

I find it astonishing the amount of influence iwi have over the authorities here in New Zealand. The Department of Conservation would not allow racing in Lyttelton unless SailGP had approval from the iwi. I suspect most New Zealanders don’t realize the full implications of such a stance.

It’s been my experience throughout my long career connected with the ocean, that dolphins are extremely intelligent mammals and are inherently aware of boats around them. The Hector’s Dolphin is not an endangered species as Otago university professor Liz Slooten recently claimed. That was a lie.

Of course, with any decision like this there needs to be a balance. For example, one could say that because there is a chance of a road death that we shouldn’t be allowed to drive on the roads. I suspect most people would conclude that such a stance would be far too extreme and not practical. Inherently, as a society we accept an element of risk in our daily lives.

The Department of Conservation, Ecan, and Lyttetton Port Company have enforced services upon SailGP – (which is an international company with its main offices in London and New York) – that are not required and not demanded anywhere else in the world, yet are nevertheless imposed as a condition for allowing the races to proceed in Lyttetton. The costs from those un-required services total approximately 300k. In addition to that, there are 11 so-called expert dolphin observers that are being paid NZD $600 per day each, plus their expenses in a program that totals $78,000.

It was demanded that those dolphin observers be onsite from Thursday onwards, despite the harbormaster reducing practice on that day to around 11 minutes of sailing. These are costs and services that SailGP doesn’t face anywhere else in the world. In conducting this event, SailGP alone is spending approximately NZD $5.5 million the local economy.

Of course, our international teams also go to considerable effort and expense to send their teams to New Zealand to compete and it’s fair to say that they are also not happy with the way this program is being managed.

SailGP distributes live broadcast to 212 territories worldwide and many of those broadcasters including CBS in the US turned the feed off well before the conclusion of the live broadcast window.

There are a lot of considerations in managing an event like this yet almost none of those are not being properly considered by the environmental and harbor authorities here in Christchurch.

The fact is almost all of the people here in Christchurch are incredibly supportive and positive. I’d like to thank all of those people who have made us feel so welcome. I feel sorry for the fans, local businesses and all those people that are so proud of this incredible city that the event has been so disrupted, Let’s hope we finish with some great racing today.

Coutts is getting little sympathy, with one leader noting how “SailGP knew what they signed up for when they decided to hold the event within a marine mammal sanctuary.” – Full report

Christchurch Final Results
1. New Zealand (Peter Burling), 1-4-2-(1)
2. France (Quintin Delapierre), 2-5-1-(2)
3. Canada (Phil Robertson), 5-1-3-(3)
4. Spain (Diego Botin), 3-2-4
5. Germany (Erik Heil), 6-6-5
6. Switzerland (Nathan Outteridge), 7-7-7
7. Great Britain (Giles Scott), 4-3-8
8. United States (Taylor Canfield), 9-9-9
9. Denmark (Nicolai Sehested), 8-8-6
10. Australia (Tom Slingsby), 10-DNC-DNC

Season 4 Standings (after nine of 13 events; results and total points)
1. New Zealand (Peter Burling), 1-7-8-DNC/6-4-1-1-3-1; 68 points
2. Australia (Tom Slingsby), 2-3-2-2-3-2-7-1-10; 59
3. Spain (Diego Botin), 5-1-3-6-6-10-2-5-4; 55
4. France (Quintin Delapierre), 6-8-6-4-7-4-4-4-2; 54
5. Denmark (Nicolai Sehested), 4-2-4-7-2-6-9-2-9; 50
6. United States (Jimmy Spithill/Taylor Canfield), 9-5-5-3-1-8-3-9-8; 48
7. Canada (Phil Robertson), 3-4-10-5-5-3-6-10-3; 46
8. Great Britain (Ben Ainslie/Giles Scott), 7-6-1-1-8-5-8-7-7; 45
9. Germany (Erik Heil), 10-10-7-8-9-10-9-5-6-5; 27
10. Switzerland (Sebastien Schneiter/Nathan Outteridge), 8-9-9-9-7-10-8-6; 22

For scoring adjustments, click here.

Season 4 – 2023
June 16-17 – United States Sail Grand Prix | Chicago at Navy Pier
July 22-23 – United States Sail Grand Prix | Los Angeles
September 9-10 – France Sail Grand Prix | Saint-Tropez
September 23-24 – Italy Sail Grand Prix | Taranto
October 14-15 – Spain Sail Grand Prix | Andalucía- Cádiz
December 9-10 – Dubai Sail Grand Prix | Dubai*

Season 4 – 2024
January 13-14 – Abu Dhabi Sail Grand Prix | Abu Dhabi
February 24-25 – Australia Sail Grand Prix | Sydney
March 23-24 – New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Auckland
March 23-24 – New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch
May 4-5 – Bermuda Sail Grand Prix
June 1-2 – Canada Sail Grand Prix | Halifax
June 22-23 – United States Sail Grand Prix | New York
July 13-14 – SailGP Season 4 Grand Final | San Francisco
* Added October 3, 2023

Format for Season 4:
• Teams compete in identical F50 catamarans.
• Each event runs across two days.
• Up to seven qualifying fleet races of approximately 15 minutes may be scheduled for each regatta.
• The top three teams from qualifying advance to a final race to be crowned event champion and earn the largest share of the $300,000.00 USD event prize money purse (increases to $400k for Abu Dhabi with the winning team now earning $200k at each event).
• The season ends with the Grand Final, which includes the Championship Final Race for the top three teams in the season standing with the winner claiming the $2 million USD prize.
• The top team on points ahead of the three-boat Championship Final will be awarded $350,000.00.

For competition documents, click here.

Established in 2018, SailGP seeks to be an annual, global sports league featuring fan-centric inshore racing among national teams in some of the iconic harbors around the globe.

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