Sailing veteran Tony Rae could claim to know the Hauraki Gulf like the back of his hand. But, even though the 52-year-old has been sailing the waters of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf since he was a boy, he says there are still sheltered bays and hidden coves that surprise him.
When he's not racing, the Emirates Team New Zealand trimmer, his wife Lynda and their family like to head off into the Hauraki Gulf.
"There are always new places to discover, I still find bays I never knew existed. You could go around the gulf for two months and not see it all. It’s never-ending," Rae says.
For recreational sailors, Rae reckons the Hauraki Gulf is pretty hard to beat, anywhere in the world.
"It doesn't matter if you are in a big power boat or a little yacht, there are so many places to visit, so close to the city. And the beauty of it is there will be hardly anyone around you, it's such a huge place," he says.
"Motuihe is a classic example - on one side of the island, you can see the city, but walk 50 metres to the other side, and it's just farmland and the sea."
Perfect training ground
The Hauraki Gulf is also the perfect venue for sailboat racing. With its islands close to the mainland creating a superb natural amphitheatre, it has been the scene of some classic America's Cup battles, and unforgettable round-the-world race starts and finishes.
A veteran of seven America's Cups campaigns - five New Zealand challenges and two defences since 1987 - plus four round-the-world-races, hundreds of keelboat regattas and the international match-racing circuit, Tony Rae spent the past summer sailing on Auckland's waters again.
A trimmer on the Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) crew, Rae spent the summer trialling, training and racing the team's two brand new AC72 catamarans, which share the name Aotearoa.
The first of the new ground-breaking generation of America's Cup multihulls - in fact the first of its kind to be launched in the world - hit the waters of the Gulf in July 2012.
Under Cup rules, the boat could go out sailing for just 30 days, before the second of ETNZ's boats was launched in February 2013.
The Kiwis then made the most of a glorious New Zealand summer to test their race boat, and even engage in some racing with the Italian challengers, Luna Rossa, also in Auckland preparing for the Louis Vuitton Cup.
In April, the two teams packed up their boats and shipped them to San Francisco ready for racing to begin in earnest in July.
Viaduct Harbour base
Emirates Team New Zealand literally took their base with them - the team's home has been in Auckland's Viaduct Harbour since 1999.
"It’s so important to have a venue you can sail consistently four -five days a week," says ETNZ chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge. "Without a good venue to sail it’s a big setback, and the Gulf has been perfect for us.
"We’ve always considered it a big strength to sail here. It’s home, and it’s an established America’s Cup area, so it was set up already. We know where the best parts of the Gulf are - a lot of us grew up out there. And we know the good testing days, so we’re not wasting time figuring out whether to head out there or not.
"It’s been a big part of our success so far."
100 islands to race around
The gulf, with its 100 islands, is more than just a source of fantastic cruising adventures. Rae is just one of many who have raced the myriad courses that criss-cross the waters, using islands, rocks and lighthouses as points to sail around.
"The racing is cool because of the islands - it’s not just out around the markers and back," he says.
The geography of Auckland, with its narrow isthmus, makes the waters of the Hauraki Gulf an interesting place to sail. The steady sea breezes compete with southwesterly winds, and in mid-afternoon, there’s the heat off the land to contend with.
"Because of that, it makes it an unpredictable place to sail, and that’s part of the fun," says Rae. "The changes happen so quickly. A forecast of 5 - 25 knots is not unusual."
Islands of the gulf
The Hauraki Gulf is protected from the Pacific Ocean by the Coromandel Peninsula and Great Barrier Island to the east. Great Barrier and Waiheke are the largest islands, with Waiheke the most populated (roughly 8,000 permanent residents).
Waiheke is a 30-minute ferry ride from the city, a trip many business commuters make daily. The island is famous for its white-sand beaches, vineyards and olive groves, and its thriving art scene.
Rangitoto Island dominates Auckland’s seascape. One of Auckland’s most iconic symbols, it is the largest and youngest of the city’s volcanic peaks, erupting from the sea 600 years ago. Stepping on to Rangitoto, with its red rocks and unusual hybrid plants, is like walking on another planet.
New Zealand & the America's Cup
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