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Best Day In History

How We Got To Peter Burling’s “Best Day in SGP History”

ChristchurchNZ General Manager of Destination and Attraction Loren Aberhart reflects on the path to the recent SailGP event and its future in Christchurch.

When SailGP first came knocking on Christchurch’s door in August 2020, we didn’t think they were serious. Our first, frank conversation with Sir Russell Coutts was that Christchurch wasn’t interested in being used for a bidding war against Auckland to drive up host city investment. But he told us he believed it could be done, he had fond memories of sailing in Lyttelton, and he felt it could be the most spectacular SailGP racecourse on the circuit.

In 2023 we proved him right. Despite dolphins on the course creating delays on day one, Christchurch was voted the best venue by SailGP sailors on the Season 3 circuit. Last weekend we did it again – and this time with only just over 12 weeks’ notice. Christchurch has now seen, twice, what a truly global major event looks like – the excitement, the drama, the legacy outcomes, and the economic impact.

SailGP isn’t just a sailing event. Their ambition to be the world’s most sustainable and purpose-driven global sports platform means they delivered educational programmes to hundreds of pupils and signed deals with local companies to help them reduce their event’s carbon emissions. That is on top of the $4 million of visitor spend generated by the 2023 event, with the results from the weekend expected to be significantly larger, particularly in Lyttelton, which was pumping.

What many won’t know is that when we first contracted SailGP, as a city we asked if there was a way women could be involved. As the home of women’s suffrage, we felt it would align with our city’s identity to include women. The women’s pathway programme was born, and now a woman sails on every F50 in every race.

Any event in a natural environment comes with its challenges. SailGP had significant disruptions to its grand final event in San Francisco in 2022 when a whale remained on its racecourse. In 2023, the second day of racing in Sydney was cancelled when a freak storm took out its technical site. We all know that from time-to-time cricket gets rained off or performers lose their voices. All events come with an element of risk.

Our city should be proud to have pulled together a global major event in just three months within the parameters of a natural environment and scheduled around commercial maritime operations and health and safety measures. We want to thank all the city partners who worked collaboratively in partnership with SailGP to make this spectacular event happen. Without Christchurch pulling together for Season 4, New Zealand would have lost SailGP, possibly forever. That we didn’t is thanks to the coordinated efforts of ChristchurchNZ, Christchurch City Council, Environment Canterbury, Lyttelton Port Company, Venues Ōtautahi, Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke and the Department of Conservation. We make an awesome team.

The negative focus on operational challenges that can be easily overcome by good communication and planning is disappointing. We can take away plenty of lessons to deliver an even better event in Season 5, especially if we work in partnership with all parties with positive intent. As we build our capability as a city that hosts major and mega events, we will become a powerhouse as a destination. However, the issue of dolphins is a big one, and it is a risk that was raised with SailGP from the very first host city conversation we had.

The Marine Mammal Management Plan was created by SailGP at the request of ChristchurchNZ. This Plan was embedded into the host city contract for Christchurch to protect dolphins from strike – and to protect all parties (most notably, SailGP skippers) from potential prosecution under the Marine Mammal Protection Act 1978. Under the Act it is an offence to harass, disturb, injure, or kill marine mammals – this includes herding them or luring them away.  

The Plan is a living document where lessons are constantly applied to ensure we are flexible, dynamic and we prioritise the ability to run the event while also complying with the Act. Andrew Thompson, SailGP Managing Director called the Plan, “an industry-leading example of SailGP’s commitment to the environments in which we operate.” 

The Act applies to all New Zealand waters, not just Lyttelton Harbour. A dolphin, whale or seal in Auckland or Wellington within the same proximity as that curious Hector’s dolphin in Lyttelton on Saturday would have also caused the cancellation of an event in those cities.  

We already have a contract in place with SailGP to host Season 5 next year. We’ll have conversations with all city partners and then discuss with SailGP what the future might look like. We’ve shown there can be a balance where we both deliver incredible sailing and protect Hector’s dolphins. Sunday was an epic day of sailing while the dolphins hung out well outside of the harbour. We’d absolutely love to do that again.  

I take heart from the text message I received from Pete Burling late on Sunday night - “S*** that worked out well. Epic day. Thanks again for all the help. Pass on my thanks to everyone in the team. Best day in SGP history.”