Race of the Millennium

Ben Keys | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 2
The skipper of Silvertip taking a supremely confident approach to this rounding of the Ninepin Rock
It was a battle down to the wire for contenders in New Zealand’s epic Millennium Cup.

After three days of racing, only a matter of seconds separated the first and second-placed yachts at the conclusion of the 2016 New Zealand Millennium Cup. This ‘big boat’ regatta, held amid NZ’s spectacular Bay of Islands, offers thrilling close-quarters racing for the growing numbers of superyachts visiting the region for summer cruising.

The January event saw eight yachts competing across two divisions, ranging in size from Sydney Hobart contender, Allegro (20m) to the mighty Janice of Wyoming (41m).

Of the five yachts contesting the Millennium Cup division, four entered the final day on equal points after some inspired handicapping, and the regatta was there for the taking. It was going to be close …

It all came down to the final leg – a downwind blast from the Ninepin Rock – and as they set their spinnakers for the run home, Kealoha, Tawera and Shamoun each had their sights on the line.

As part of the foredeck crew on Kealoha, I had played my part in helping to pull off a tricky gybe-set of the downwind sail as we rounded the Ninepin. All that was left was to watch on nervously as the battle with Tawera teetered first one way, and then the other.

Shamoun took a wide line into the bay seeking more wind, but this failed to pay off and the big Andre Hoek yacht was soon falling behind.


From the deck of Kealoha it became clear we were perfectly matched with Tawera. As the finish line drew closer, it would be the final few miles of tactics which would decide the winner.

In a shifty 10 to 12 knot breeze, Tawera gybed off toward Paihia, while the Kealoha crew crossed their fingers and hoped standing on a little further would have us come out ahead.

But then, with two more quick gybes, it was over – Tawera snuck across the line just 19s ahead of Kealoha for the win, while Shamoun held off the fast-finishing Janice of Wyoming and Silvertip for third place.

To an outsider, it could seem unfair pitting smaller, older yachts such as Tawera against modern race machines such as Silvertip but, over the years, regatta organisers have devised a clever system of handicapping.

The catchily-titled International Superyacht Rule (ISYR) sees each boat’s handicap based around past results and their expected performance in the forecast wind speeds.

Each day begins as a pursuit race, with the slowest yachts starting first and the thoroughbreds given the task of hauling them in before the finish line.

Out on the race course, it’s stirring stuff as the frontrunners try to hold off the larger, faster yachts amid ever-changing conditions.

The fact that four yachts were fighting for victory on the final day is a real testament to the handicappers – to have a superyacht regatta decided by mere seconds is simply unheard of.


This pursuit style of racing led to some epic battles throughout the regatta. For the crew of Kealoha, the first of these took place at the end of day one, when we found ourselves in a surprising position on the final leg – leading the race!

Some deft tactics out on the bay had seen our pretty cruiser (hardly a speed machine) overtake both Tawera and Shamoun after starting around 30 minutes behind this pair.

The finish line drew ever-closer. But then along came Janice …

With just a few miles remaining, the sheer waterline speed of the larger yacht became very evident as she stormed up on us from behind.

The rules of this regatta state that any overtaking yacht must keep at least 40m clear of the boat in front, and as Janice of Wyoming’s skipper drew closer, it was clear they might choose to ignore this guideline.

Some spirited radio banter took place, followed by some polite reminders that this was a ‘gentleman’s race’, but there was no stopping Janice as she blasted for home and first place.


Day two proved to be a marathon race in varied conditions – an extra-long course in shifting winds meant the tacticians and navigators would have their work cut out for them.

This all climaxed spectacularly at Ninepin Rock, where two race fleets found themselves approaching from different directions.

This would have been fine, normally. But then the wind died.

Kealoha and Steinlager II found themselves drifting anti-clockwise round the craggy pinnacle, while two yachts appeared from the other side. At one point, the two smaller boats even started their engines and deployed fenders, certain a collision was imminent.

Somehow we all avoided an expensive tangle but, in the meantime, the yachts in front had powered away and the back-runners were approaching fast. This produced an epic sprint to the line, providing Tawera with her first win of the regatta.

On the third day of racing, it was a real surprise for Kealoha’s crew to find ourselves in a genuine battle for Millennium Cup line honours.

The Bay of Islands event is the first regatta Kealoha has undertaken and her last-minute collection of race crew headed north from Auckland with their sights set on having an enjoyable time in an amazing location, rather than expecting to trouble the trophy engravers.

To enjoy such a nail-biting conclusion was a satisfying finale for our crew, who thoroughly enjoyed both the spectacular location and the post-race functions hosted nightly by the Millennium Cup sponsors.

For information on the 2017 Millennium Cup and the announcement of race dates, go to: millenniumcup.com. To see some amazing overhead video shot by Shamoun crew member Chris Troup, go to: vimeo.com/157378486.


To ensure close finishes, each yacht is handicapped with different start times, based around what the forecasters expect the wind strength to be on that day.

The first (and slowest) boat starts from ‘scratch’, with other yachts crossing the startline in a staggered fashion dependent on their time penalty. These can include substantial gaps – on day two, Silvertip started more than one hour after Tawera.

Of course, the weather can change quickly, or the wind can die altogether, so there’s always something interesting going on for the skippers and tacticians.

The goal of the International Superyacht Rule is to ensure that “ … any well-sailed boat should have a reasonable shot at the podium in every race.”

The other advantage is that sailors know at all times how they are faring against the competition.


Millennium Cup

1st Tawera

2nd Kealoha

3rd Janice of Wyoming

4th Silvertip

5th Shamoun

Pacific Cup

1st Steinlager 2

2nd Allegro

3rd Antaeus


Millennium Cup division

Tawera (28m) – built in NZ by Alloy Yachts, this ketch (formerly called Catalyst) was purchased by new owners Mike and Tracy Mahoney just one month before the race.

Kealoha (28m) – this pretty Andre Hoek classic was my ride for the Cup. It was her first regatta as she explores the Pacific en route to Asia and Europe. Shamoun (33m) – another Andre Hoek ‘Modern Classic’ design, the curvaceous Shamoun is also on a round-the-world voyage, heading to Tahiti and Fiji this winter.

Silvertip (34m) – a true thoroughbred, Silvertip is a serial competitor at the Millennium Cup, winning in 2009 and 2012.

Janice of Wyoming (41m) – this graceful girl now calls NZ home and 2016 was her sixth appearance at the Millennium Cup.

Pacific division

Allegro (20m) – the Aussie crew of Allegro thoroughly enjoyed the chilled vibes at the Bay of Islands after recently punishing themselves in the Sydney Hobart race.

Antaeus (20m) – the extensive racing resume of Antaeus includes setting a record in the Auckland to Musket Cove (Fiji) regatta.

Steinlager II (25.5m) – this famous maxi ketch, known as ‘Big Red’, is a familiar sight in NZ waters. A genuine icon.