Shirley Robertson, America’s Cup broadcaster

If she’d had the chance, would double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson have sailed in the America’s Cup?

“Yes, yes, YES!” the engaging Scottish sailor and TV broadcaster says, though today’s foiling monohulls may not be her boat of choice.

“I was the kind of sailor who would have loved the slow boats and tactical match racing,” she says. “To be part of starting something and working towards perfection is compelling. It’s what makes the America’s Cup so hard, elusive and engaging.  

“We get a glimpse of that working in television, where 100 people come together and hope to make something absolutely amazing.”

This is the first time Robertson, a seasoned sailing commentator and podcaster, has worked for the world feed of the America’s Cup broadcast.

You can hear her calm, considered and clued-up voice usually coming from the thick of the action on the racecourse. She’ll be back on the Hauraki Gulf on Friday for day two of the America’s Cup match as the on-the-water commentator on  Chase Boat One, which keeps up with the 40 (and now 50) knot speeds of the AC75s. No one gets closer.

“As a sailor, it’s good to feel the breeze, the tension and the sense of occasion out there,” she says.

But as a broadcaster she finds it more rewarding calling what she sees from the studio on land. “You see more with a room full of screens, and there’s the interaction between three of us in the room,” she says. Former America’s Cup skippers Ken Read and Nathan Outteridge are also on the commentary team – you’ll hear them talking to the helmsmen after the races on TVNZ’s coverage.

Shirley Robertson broadcasting from on board Chase Boat One. Photo: supplied. 

A celebrated sailor who won gold at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Robertson is very aware her audience – from 195 territories around the globe – may be new to sailing, and the often perplexing America’s Cup.

“With these new boats, even if you are a sailor you’re looking at something that’s just very foreign. So we need to explain it in a way that’s not too nerdy,” she says. “I think of the viewer as ‘educated sports fan’.”

Her highlight so far? The round-robin race between Luna Rossa and INEOS Team UK where there were nine lead changes on the stadium course on the Waitemata Harbour.

But the moment that will always stay with her: the capsize of American Magic’s Patriot. “I was on the water and we stayed and filmed the whole thing till the boat came in. I got a lovely letter from the wife of their coach saying what a solace it had been for all the wives and shore team to watch what was going on.”

While Robertson feels privileged to be part of what’s become a unique global sports event, she also finds it difficult being away from her family in these Covid-19 times – her 14-year-old twins are back at home in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight (where the first America’s Cup was raced).

She’s looking forward to doing her own sailing again. She’s half of a double-handed offshore crew with round-the-world sailor Harry Bomby, and they’re competing in this year’s Fastnet Race.

She’s also become an ocean swimmer – the colder, the better – and has been doing the odd swim along Auckland’s east coast beaches when the Cup allows.

Alessandra Pandarese, general counsel for the Challenger of Record

Few people know the rules of the America’s Cup inside and out like Alessandra Pandarese.

For more than 30 years she’s worked in the much contested and fraught sphere of the Cup – not on the water, but on the legal side.

One of the best-known lawyers in the sailing world, Pandarese has been caught up in the Cup since the 1992 edition, working for the Italian challenger Il Moro di Venezia (remember the protest against the New Zealand boat’s bowsprit which helped Italy win the Louis Vuitton Cup?).

Now in Auckland, she’s the general counsel for the Challenger of Record, Luna Rossa. And it’s the role she says she’s enjoyed the most.

“It’s a chess game. Every move is an exercise towards your competitors, and from day one, you have to build up and prepare for the big race, even on shore,” she says.

It’s a job she started soon after Emirates Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup in Bermuda four years ago. On top of organising the Prada Cup and the pre-Cup regattas (which Covid-19 disrupted), there was a lot of work implementing the protocol and adding new rules.

“I’ve been working with the defender, the other challenging teams and Luna Rossa on all legal matters, including the technical and commercial sides, the television rights. It’s a huge job,” she says.

She worked with Prada when they were the 2003 Challenger of Record “so it’s the repeat of a dream,” she says. “But a dream that has a lot of cost.

“You have to dedicate your entire life to this project and there’s a lot of compromise.”

Pandarese has two adult sons and a husband back in Milan. “I met my husband when I was working with Il Moro di Venezia, and sometimes he jokes ‘I not only married you, but also the America’s Cup’,” she says.

Like most America’s Cups, there have been many litigious moments between the challengers and the defender in Auckland.

“But the contention is natural,” Pandarese says. “For sure at the beginning there was a lot of common ground and common objectives – the decision on the type of boat, the type of events – and I feel that’s still there. But when you go into details, when you overlap the different objectives, then you start to have different views.”

Covid didn’t help: “Things were better when we had the opportunity to meet in person, where for more than a year we couldn’t. But I think we’ve sorted it out; we’ve overcome a lot of challengers on and off the water.”

During Cup racing, Pandarese can always be found in the same spot – in front of the big screen at the Luna Rossa base. “It’s my ritual, to take away the tension,” she laughs.

Suellen Hurling, founder of Live Sail Die

Suellen Hurling records Chris Steele interviewing Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena. Photo: Will Reid | Live Sail Die

The day American Magic almost met a watery grave, Live Sail Die kept the sailing world right at the boat’s side.

A livestream video of the saving of AC75 Patriot has been viewed almost 500,000 times.

Suellen Hurling, founder of the Live Sail Die sailing website, knew the commodore of the Royal Akarana Yacht Club, Jason Morgan, was out on the Hauraki Gulf when Patriot capsized in the Prada Cup. “I rang him and said ‘Go live’ and without hesitation, all the family got behind it,” she recalls.

“That’s the good thing about Live Sail Die – it isn’t just me. We’re a family of sailors, a bunch of enthusiasts who fizz out on sailing.”

What started as a “creative outlet and sideline hobby” now has 22 sailing fanatics around New Zealand contributing to the site, which pulled in over one million YouTube viewers in January.

Hurling says she had no choice growing up in northern New South Wales: “My parents were sailing a Hobie 16 when Mum was eight months pregnant with me.”

Her dad would take her out on the30ft racing catamaran he built in their backyard on the Clarence River in Grafton – “that was our camping”.

Next door lived Olympic sailor Andrew Landenberger, a silver medallist in the Tornado. Team NZ sailor Glenn Ashby trained on the river too. “I’ve been inspired by amazing sailors all my life; I knew I wanted to be involved too,” she says.

“It was a hard pill to swallow when I realised I wasn’t good enough to be a professional sailor. But 20-odd years ago, the opportunities for women to become top sailors almost didn’t exist. But I knew how to take photos, write and make videos about sailing.”

Suellen Hurling livestreaming on board the yacht, Anarchy. Photo: Andrews Delves | RNZYS

So in 2005, while working as the sailing manager at the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron, Hurling started the Live Sail Die website. (She was once asked what she would do with her life: ‘Live, sail and die’.)

Then, looking for a new challenge, she moved to Auckland to run the Royal Akarana Yacht Club’s events. “I found my happiness in New Zealand,” she says. And she saw a “massive opportunity” to promote sailing in a way no-one else was.

“What blew my mind is in Auckland you can sail every day of the week. You don’t have to be the best; you can just be a sailor and have a good time,” she says.

The 40-year-old still sails, a lot of the time in beautiful wooden M Class boats; in 2017 she won gold in a Laser at the World Masters Games. She still helps out the RAYC with racing, keeping her in the loop.

The Live Sail Die team have claimed a corner of the America’s Cup media centre as their own. Among the sailors on board are international match-racer Chris Steele, Cup veteran Cameron Dunn and sailmaker apprentice Alison Kent.

Hurling has fallen head over heels for the Auld Mug. “I love the drama, the frustration and the stress of it all,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it’s just a couple of boats racing around some marks.”

Next, she wants to take Live Sail Die global. “As long as boats are out there, we’ll keep talking about them.”

Jo Coleman, senior project manager America’s Cup, for Auckland Unlimited

Jo Coleman. Photo: supplied.

She’s been a TV netball commentator, a manager of the Black Ferns, and involved with running World Cups for rugby, league and football and the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Yet nothing could have prepared Jo Coleman for a global pandemic and a tsunami evacuation during an America’s Cup.

In her role as senior project manager of the Cup for Auckland Unlimited, Coleman co-ordinates everything in the city around the event.

“ACE [America’s Cup Events] deliver the on-water and on-land events, and we make sure the city continues to function with a major event happening right through the middle of it, but also gets the most out of the America’s Cup,” she says.

“But this event is so unusual. Your venue isn’t a venue that has gates and tickets, but a working harbour in the country’s biggest city; you don’t know how many people will watch or come; you don’t know whether racing is going to start on time or start at all that day.

“Then you throw a global pandemic into the mix – then perhaps a tsunami.” (Coleman had to do her work from a hillside paddock after being evacuated during last week’s tidal wave warning).

“So you just have to roll with the punches. But I love it. You have to care about the city and its residents – not just your event.”

Her experience working with major sporting events here and overseas has prepared her well, including managing the Black Ferns on tour in the UK in 2009, when the team stayed on an air force base “a long way from anywhere”.

“I think what I’ve brought to this role is having no expectations of everything going perfectly. Plan and mitigate for it all as best you can and have good people around you. We have the best team culture, and it’s all hands on deck,” she says.

Most major events have one operations centre, occasionally two. This Cup has four. “The communication and co-ordination required between us, ACE, Auckland Transport and emergency services to run an on-land and on-water event is a pretty chunky exercise,” Coleman says.

Part of Auckland Unlimited’s role is looking after the legion of ‘city skippers’ – the volunteers in teal shirts who help with wayfinding, managing crowds and helping with the 21 Summernova festival events across the city.

“We have some fabulous volunteers who are stuck here in New Zealand and can’t get home, or who’ve lost their businesses or jobs through Covid and want to be part of something and engage with people again,” Coleman says.

“You’d have to be living under a rock not to see how beautiful New Zealand looks in the race broadcasts. There have been lovely messages from people overseas – who see Kiwis out and about, supporting the event with smiles on their faces – saying: ‘This is what we’re aiming for; you give us hope’.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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