Sailing: SailGP boss Sir Russell Coutts doubles down on Christchurch venue, after dolphins halt racing

SailGP Sir Russell Coutts has doubled down on his claims that Christchurch will not host future series events, after losing a day's racing to dolphins in Lyttelton Harbour.

Voted by many as their favourite stopover on the international sailing series, New Zealand lost credibility among the sailing community, when the intervention of mammals on the course lead to the cancellation of the opening day's action, with a record 20,000 punters heading home disappointed.

SailGP prides itself on looking after the ocean and wildlife, but Coutts claims this is the first time racing has been stalled by those principles.

Sir Russell Coutts (left) waits for sailing to begin at Lyttelton.
Sir Russell Coutts (left) waits for sailing to begin at Lyttelton. Photo credit: Getty Images

"SailGP operates all over the world and, no doubt, there are marine mammals in the water in all of the locations we race," he claimed. "We've never had an incident in 35 events.

"Unfortunately, yesterday was another example of there being almost no balance in the decisionmaking - another example of New Zealand being handcuffed by unprecedented layers of bureaucracy and red tape."

In fact, racing was delayed on the opening day at Christchurch last year, as dolphins were allowed to pass through the course, while NZ driver Peter Burling has told Newshub of at least one other incident involving sealife.

"Everywhere, we have a marine mammal management plan," he said. "We resailed the final two years ago, because a whale came through the course in San Francisco.   

"We've got to be respectful to the environment and if the scientists tell us there's a risk, we've got to listen to them."

Sir Russell - a Team New Zealand America's Cup hero - seems to disagree, counting the cost of such precautions and questioning the advice event organisers have received from experts.

"It's been my experience throughout my long career connected with the ocean that dolphins are extremely intelligent mammals and are inherently aware of boats around them," he said. "The Hector's dolphin is not an endangered species, as Otago University professor Liz Slooten recently claimed.

"That was a lie."

Coutts claims the level of care taken around local wildlife has added considerable costs to staging the event at Lyttelton.

"I find it astonishing the amount of influence iwi have over the authorities here in New Zealand," he said. "The Department of Conservation would not allow racing in Lyttelton, unless SailGP had approval from the iwi - I suspect most New Zealanders don't realise the full implications of such a stance.

"The Department of Conservation, Ecan [Environment Canterbury] and Lyttelton Port Company have enforced services upon SailGP that are not required and not demanded anywhere else in the world, yet are nevertheless imposed as a condition for allowing the races to proceed in Lyttelton.

"The costs from those unrequired services total approximately $300,000. In addition to that, there are 11 so-called expert dolphin observers that are being paid NZ$600 per day each, plus their expenses, in a programme that totals $78,000."

Coutts says many overseas broadcoasters switched off their coverage before racing was officially cancelled, damaging the series' reputation.

Spain and Great Britain collide during practice at Lyttelton.
Spain and Great Britain collide during practice at Lyttelton. Photo credit: Photosport

This year, the New Zealand leg of SailGP was scheduled for Auckland, but that venue was dropped, when spectator facilities did not meet requirements.

"Christchurch has proven to be one of our very best events to date - with fantastic racing, thousands of fans and spectacular scenery in a natural amphitheatre," he said at the time.  

"This is a perfect venue for the stadium-style, inner-harbour racing SailGP is known for around the world and we can't wait to bring more fans closer to the action with additional grandstands planned for next year's event."

After Coutts' threats to drop Christchurch as a future venue, Mayor Phil Mauger told Newshub: "I'll need to have a yarn to him.

"We've just got to work together and make it work. I'll be moving heaven and earth to make sure that doesn't happen."

Live coverage of the ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix 2024 will be hosted on Three & ThreeNow