At once majestic, nerve-jangling and exhilarating – there is something surreal about a fleet of superyachts racing in close proximity, their towering rigs and gigantic sails dwarfing the ant-like crews scurrying below, as Lawrence Schäffler experienced first-hand. Images by Roger Mills and Jeff Brown. Video by Roger Mills.


Seven of these glorious vessels came together in February for the 2021 Mastercard Superyacht Regatta. More were expected (Covid did the damage) but the reduced fleet nevertheless presented a superb spectacle on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf.
The event – the first superyacht regatta held anywhere in the world for over a year – was organised by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and, after four days of racing, Mike Mahoney’s team on the 28m ketch Tawera claimed the overall trophy by a nine-point margin.
“Unbelievable,” said a triumphant Mahoney. “Given the climate we are operating under now, it shouldn’t have happened, but thanks to the Squadron, to get this regatta underway was just unbelievable. Everyone’s had a wonderful time, the races were fantastic, the courses were brilliant, and we are really happy to come out with a good result.”
The other vessels in the fleet were Miss Silver (36m), Sassafras (34m), Silvertip (34m), Aschanti IV (35m), Whirlwind (31m) and Catalina (44m). Because of the yachts’ different sizes and designs the starts were staggered (based on ORC ratings) – with the boats crossing the start line a few minutes apart.
Of course, some were faster than others, which often made for intimate maneuvering around the top mark of the 15 to 16-mile courses – and lots of hard-fought battles right down to the finish line.
Tawera’s first-place finish (10 points) was followed by Miss Silver (19), Silvertip (20), Whirlwind (22), Sassafras (24), Catalina (35) and Aschanti IV (38).
Camera/video man Roger Mills and I were lucky enough to be invited to experience the racing on Catalina – at 44m the biggest in the fleet. And only once on board in the thick of the action does one begin to appreciate the scale and complexity of this vessel – and perhaps more importantly, the level of coordination required from the 25 (race) crew to sail her successfully.
Catalina may have had the longest water line but with her 275-tonne displacement she’s not the speediest – she needs a fair bit of wind to be able to lift her skirts. The Hauraki Gulf delivered 20-plus knots on one of the race days, but light winds on the other days resulted in genteel strolls. Still, standing on the foredeck as the giant spread of red gennaker unravels with a crack is unforgettable.
As a staysail ketch, tacking/gybing is a tricky affair requiring slick timing from the crew. Furl the genoa, tack/gybe and unfurl. Gybing with the gennaker and mizzen staysail is even more tricky. Not for nothing does the deckie ‘foreman’ wear a radio headset (as do others at various stations along the deck).
Coordination and timing cues from the skipper are vital – and apart from being unseemly, screaming profanity-laced commands across a 44m deck is not physically possible – the distances are too great.
All controls on this vessel are hydraulic – understandable when you consider the mainsail alone tips the scales at around 750kg. Can you imagine trying to hoist that beast up the 52m, five-spreader carbon fibre mast – even with 25 crew hauling in unison?
On the day we were aboard, a tight tussle developed between us, Whirlwind and Miss Silver – and it became particularly tense as we approached the last mark. Of course, it all came down to the speed of the gybe. Our chaps did a great job, but not quite enough. Miss Silver slipped by, though we edged Whirlwind.
Despite her performance, Catalina’s skipper Sean Whitney remained philosophical and maintained perspective: “It was the best experience for us because we could engage with people, have fun, and get so much enjoyment out of being in a country like New Zealand, the sailing was fantastic, and we had a really enjoyable time.”