The US investment bank JP Morgan and the now defunct Barnum & Bailey Circus have more than the obvious jocular connection of both employing clowns at certain points in time. It’s a little known fact in common parlance but both were established in 1871. Another institution that is just days away from the start of a sesquicentennial year of celebration is the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, holder and host of next year’s America’s Cup. That’s not a bad thing to be doing in your 150th year of formation and many a club on the world stage is enviously eyeing the success that the Squadron quite rightly deserves.
Being the host club for this event is like walking on thin ice. It’s tricky. It’s slippery. And at any moment a crack can appear, surety can give way and you find yourself falling into icy waters. The politics of running a Cup is very hard. Harder still is running a club amidst the politics and keeping the show on the road, the members happy and a full racing and social programme. The Cup comes and the Cup goes – the Squadron knows that better than any other on the planet – so keeping feet on the ground and egos in check is a constant battle. They do a terrific job.
Yacht clubs around the world are struggling. Merger talk for survival is in the air around every corner. What the pandemic has done is expose those that have been swimming naked and the tide has gone out. It will only trickle back in. Clubs need to reinvent themselves for a different generation and it’s hard.
The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron has little to worry about in the re-generation stakes as in typical Kiwi style, it re-generated and got modern 20 years ago. It is one of the most welcoming clubs on the planet devoid of the stuffiness and closed-door approach elsewhere. Not a member? No problems, come and sail with us. We’ll find you a boat. Speak to Dave. And before you know it you’re on the start-line facing a beat out to the Heads, a glorious evening on the water and a beer or two in the bar afterwards. That was my experience of the Club.
Much of the current calmness in the Club today points towards an effective governance. In Aaron Young they have a youthful, intelligent, forward-looking Commodore supported by the excellent Andy Aitken as Vice. The committee is made up of sailors which is always a good sign but the real secret weapon is the staff – dedicated, loyal, professional and with a singularity of purpose. The Club is run for its members and whilst the Cup is a welcomed sideshow, it doesn’t define it – although quite rightly, the members that I know are very proud of their involvement and history in the competition.
There have been the usual calls for the Cup to change in recent days. The New York Yacht Club hosted a meeting to discuss ‘a way forward.’ To be frank, it’s the usual chatter but it’s right that it happens. Too expensive. Not enough participants. Yada Yada. The RNZYS kept its powder dry. If you want to change it, win it, was the message by my reading. And quite right too. What the Club has done for the Cup is immeasurable. The biggest change this cycle is the free-to-air nature of the coverage. That’s a game-changer. It opens the doors to the world – and that, my friends, is very much the DNA of the Squadron.
In its 150th year, the celebrations are, as to be expected, immense both on and off the water. The Mastercard Superyacht Cup for sure is a highlight along with the America’s Cup but both are equalled in my humble opinion, at the other end of the scale, by the Barfoot and Thompson Bridge to Bean Race where everything from Oppies to foiling dinghies head out to Bean Rock and back at the end of February. It’s easy to concentrate on the big, high profile stuff and forget the kids but that’s not the style of the RNZYS. And if you’ve ever seen the Bean Rock lighthouse it’s a scary place in a breeze and I can only imagine what it’s like going round in an Optimist! Let’s hope for fair winds and a good race.
Good luck to the Squadron in the coming year. I wish it well. The smart money and all the indications are there that the Club will retain the Auld Mug and keep safe custody for another four years. Emirates Team New Zealand, the club team, is a mighty mighty outfit with a great club right behind it.
And unlike the bank and the circus, there aren’t any clowns in the Squadron.
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