Boats start in a race two of the SailGP series...

Boats start in a race two of the SailGP series on Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Credit: AP/Mark Baker

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand has a chance to close the gap on series leader Australia in its home SailGP event at Lyttelton on New Zealand’s South Island over the weekend.

The New Zealand event is the ninth of 13 legs in the series and with around 22,000 tickets sold is being billed as the largest ticketed sailing event in history.

Many more spectators are expected to watch the two-day event from boats around the course, raising concerns among conservationists for the endangered Hector’s dolphin which lives in and around Lyttelton Harbour and currently is in its calving season.

The SailGP series is in its fourth year and involves 10 teams racing identical high-tech foiling catamarans that can reach speeds of around 50 knots (57mph).

There are three regattas after Christchurch in Bermuda, Halifax and New York before the three leading teams compete in the San Francisco finale in July.

Each event involves six fleet races before a final, the winner of which is the event champion. The champion is awarded 10 points on the overall series standings, the second team nine points and so on down to one point for 10th place.

Australia has 66 points, eight clear of second-place New Zealand. Canada is next on 52, followed by Spain on 48 and France, Britain and the United States all on 45. Canada, in eighth place on 38, won the Lyttelton event last year from host New Zealand.

Australia races during the SailGP series on Sydney Harbour, Sydney,...

Australia races during the SailGP series on Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Credit: AP/Mark Baker

Lyttelton is again expected to provide good sailing conditions with the range of wind meaning boats will be racing near their upper speed limits.

New Zealand driver Peter Burling returns after missing the last leg of the series in Sydney while on paternity leave. Nathan Outteridge drove the New Zealand boat into second place in Burling’s absence but will drive for last-place place Switzerland this weekend.

“It’s definitely been an interesting season but (we're) looking forward to our home event now and trying to ramp up into the Grand Final,” said Burling, who drove the New Zealand boat to wins in his last two events before his break. “Going for the hat-trick for myself. It’s going to be an absolutely awesome weekend.

“If you look at the forecast, it’s going to be a step up breeze-wise from last year.”

Australia sails under the Sydney Harbour Bridge after winning the...

Australia sails under the Sydney Harbour Bridge after winning the home leg of the SailGP series on Sydney Harbour, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Credit: AP/Mark Baker

Australia’s win in Sydney was its first event win of 2024, though it's consistency has taken it to the top of the series standings.

“It was important for us as a team,” Australia driver Tom Slingsby said of the Sydney victory. “We were sailing so well ... it was just getting a bit frustrating not being able to put it together in that final race. For us to get our first win in Australia was just the perfect fairytale.

“We’ve got that off our back and now we can start focusing on the end of the season and the Grand Final.”

New Zealander Phil Robertson was at the helm for Canada's win here last year.

“Happy to do it again,” Robertson said. “I’m a Kiwi also and it’s awesome to race at home in front of all the fans.

“In my professional career I’ve raced here once before and that was last year so it’s nice to be back here and racing again. The conditions look epic and we’re amped to try an defend the title.”

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