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Council was warned about race

LOUISE BERWICK
Last updated 05:00 14/06/2014

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Team New Zealand sailing boss Grant Dalton was one of the first to fire warning shots to city leaders about the doomed Auckland to Bluff Yacht Race.

Despite a succession of warnings, the Government and the Invercargill City Council backed it, eventually sinking thousands of dollars of public money into it that will never be recovered.

Council report shows the organisers were warned several times there might not be enough entries, the sailing route was dangerous and Bluff was the wrong destination.

City council chief executive Richard King met with Dalton in 2011, before the council injected $100,000 into the race.

"Grant Dalton . . . was very supportive but also issued a note of caution about getting enough boats to compete and a bad forecast could mean all entrants pull out," one report says.

Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt defended the council's decision to continue with the race. "We are all well aware of the events industry being a high-risk industry."

The warnings continued.

In July 2013 SMC Events, organisers of the race, were advised that for the Auckland to Fiji Ocean Race staged in June 2013, 65 entries expressions of interest were received but only seven boats turned up at the start line, the report says.

Three months later the A2B Ocean Yacht Race was postponed and the council was left out of pocket.

A scathing report into the race, commissioned after the postponement, says a race could go ahead in future years, but Bluff was not a tempting destination.

The report outlined that yachtsmen consulted said the race would always struggle with a "relatively small fleet" of boats in the market, competition with existing events and escalating costs.

Council events committee chairman Peter Kett, who was not on the council at the time, said they should have pulled the plug after Dalton's warning in 2011.

"You're talking to the experts and we have got to listen to them. I think the alarm bell should have rung back then."

Once the race foundered, it was not surprising to Kett that it struggled to gain traction again because of money.

"The purse is empty and it has been empty for a very long time."

While the hurdles appeared to be money and entries, the biggest issue was always Bluff.

Shadbolt said the council was

always aware there were potential issues with Bluff being the destination.

"It was a bit scathing of Bluff, but to be honest, we [the council] were a bit scathing of Bluff too."

The report said yachties considered it a "challenging, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous race route" and they had "concerns about berthing and security of vessels in Bluff".

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"It is considered too big a challenge by the vast majority of the offshore capable racing fleet, and 86.4 per cent of the 59 boat owners that completed our survey stated that they were not interested in racing to Bluff."

They favoured the race being elsewhere, such as Auckland to Wellington, or to the Chatham Islands, the report says.

Just one skipper from Australia said they would consider entering the race.

For the race to receive Government funding, the event needed 12 entries from overseas and three entries from maxi yachts.

But the promise of extra funding from the government, on top of the $100,000 it already sunk in the event, has expired and race organisers will have to apply again.

Kett said he believed the race was dead for the near future, but it was a lesson learned about not taking what companies say at face value.

"An expensive one at that."

SMC Events did not return phone calls yesterday. 

TIMELINE

December 2012: Auckland to Bluff Yacht Race announced. Tim Shadbolt says the council and Venture Southland had worked on it for 18 months and poured $15,000 into a feasibility study.

December 2012: The Government announces it will pump $440,000 into the event subject to conditions.

December 2012: Council chief executive Richard King indicates the council would financially back the event.

May 2013: Environment Southland refuse to contribute $180,000 to the event.

June 2013: Tim Shadbolt visits Auckland to convince its council to fund the race.

July 2013: Invercargill businessman Louis Crimp offers $500,000 to the council for the race, but only if the council abolishes poker machines from the city.

August 2013: 15 entries are required by the end of September but only two yachts have signed up.

September 2013: Race postponed. 

- The Southland Times

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