City life: Gasps as gleaming monsters float in

AUCKLAND

YOU COULD almost see the dollar signs in the eyes of the crowd as Georgia, the biggest yacht in the world, slipped its moorings and glided out of Auckland harbour for a spin in the Pacific Ocean. "Will you look at the size of that," said one man, craning to take in all 159ft of it. "Awesome," murmured his friend, open-jawed.

Georgia, launched just last week, is one of dozens of gleaming monsters that have converged on Auckland for the largest gathering of superyachts seen in the southern hemisphere. Hyperion, owned by Jim Clark, founder of the Internet company Netscape, is here; so is Independence, property of Rich de Vos, the American pyramid-sales billionaire.

It is the America's Cup that is drawing the wealthy and famous to Auckland, a sleepy city that has never before been a destination for international jet-setters. With the preliminary heats almost completed and the semi-finals starting next month, the competition for yachting's most prestigious trophy is hotting up and everyone wants to be around to watch it.

While locals are enjoying the buzz of hosting a high-profile international event, Auckland itself has undergone a transformation. For the first time in its history, the self-styled City of Sails has a downtown waterfront, thanks to the redevelopment of a rundown harbour district to create a new marina, with bars, restaurants, offices and apartment blocks.

The Cup Village, as it is known, was designed to maximise public participation in an contest that, given the large sums of money at stake, could easily seem remote and elitist. From the village, spectators can watch the racing yachts departing for the choppy waters of the Hauraki Gulf, where the course is situated. They can peer into the hospitality marquees where the cup's sponsors entertain guests, and gawp at the superyachts - usually berthed away from the public gaze - at close quarters.

Even the 11 secretive syndicates battling for the right to meet the cup defenders, New Zealand, in February's finals agreed to be accommodated side by side in the village. Barbed wire protects their boats from prying eyes, though, and Team New Zealand ejected spies who tried to infiltrate an open day at its base last Sunday.

Sir Peter Blake, who skippered the New Zealand yacht, Black Magic, to victory in 1995, wresting the cup from the Americans, is under intense pressure to do it again and restore the country's sporting pride, still bruised by the All Blacks' humiliating defeat in the rugby World Cup. Although the home team has yet to wind a winch in anger, Auckland has been gripped by cup fever since racing began in mid-October.

This is a sailing-mad nation that takes to the water every weekend; one in 11 Aucklanders owns a boat, the highest per capita rate in the world. New Zealanders congregate around their televisions every night to watch an hour of racing highlights. In shopping centres and hotel foyers around Auckland, there are boards detailing the progress of the cup.

Among the syndicates, the Italians, backed by Prada, the Italian fashion house, are attracting the most attention - for their prowess on the water, where the immaculately dressed crew are in the lead, and for their lavish lifestyle on dry land. The Italians occupy two floors of the upmarket Heritage Hotel, and Patrizio Bertelli, the Prada boss, has booked the hotel ballroom for five months as his hospitality area. By contrast, members of the impoverished Young Australia team, skippered by James Spithill, 19, are staying in a student hostel. Women have been baking them cakes and locals have lent them bicycles to get around town.

The cup has put Auckland on the map and it a new aura of cosmopolitanism. But there is still scope for culture clashes. Last week, guests at an exclusive cup party at the Civic Theatre were horrified when, following a virtuoso violin performance, a sheep called Lambchop was led on stage for a display of Kiwi shearing skills. Among those who protested was Daintry Connor, wife of the syndicate chief Dennis, who stood up and shouted: "It's so unnecessary. Don't shear it". Lambchop, who had already caused consternation by relieving himself at the entrance, was shorn all the same.

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