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Luff is in the air: Anniversaries, withdrawals on first leg of Round North Island

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Equilibrium has set the early pace at the 2023 Round North Island race, winning the opening leg of the gruelling two-handed event marked by a thrilling 100nm tacking duel, three retirements, a serious injury - and two relationship milestones 45 years apart. 

Equilibrium, a Botin 55 skippered by Pete Geary and Angus Small, took the lead shortly after the 33-strong fleet departed Auckland Harbour on Saturday morning and held their position for the entire leg.

Read more: Round North Island: Father-son team set for 'bucket list' race

The 55-foot racer-cruiser was the first to arrive in Doubtless Bay, some 26 hours later, after a relentless tug-of-war with Andrew Duff and Chris Bassett's Wired.

Unlike many of its competitors, Equilibrium stayed close to shore to avoid a big wind hole off Cape Brett, a strategy that paid dividends as it managed to pick up some breeze and extend its lead.

Equilibrium was also first on Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) in Division 1, and first on PHRF overall.

"Some sailors thought that we winged such a great result, but we like to think that it was a proper thought-out plan," Small said in a statement.

"We had an intense tacking dual with Wired for about 100nm until the bungee stretched too far and broke, which basically means we just kept pulling away from them... Not only did they spend their race staring at our gorgeous transom, but they sat in a massive hole for a number of hours."

This year's 1,195nm course has been changed from four to three legs, with Napier bypassed as a destination following the devastation to the city and other parts of Hawke's Bay during Cyclone Gabrielle a fortnight ago.

The final leg is now likely to be a 560nm stretch from Waikawa to Auckland along the east coast of the North Island.

Guy Pilkington and David Whyman's Playbuoy was forced to withdraw from the race after sustaining significant damage to their rig in an incident involving Start Me Up prior to the first leg warning signal.

Start Me Up was able to continue racing after a postponement to the start.

Playbuoy is one of three retirements, with Vixen also out of the race after Scott Fickling injured his back in a fall aboard the modified Class 40. Fortunately, co-skipper James Tucker kept Fickling in a safe position and motored into Whangārei Harbour where he was transferred to hospital for x-rays.

Fickling is now recovering at home.

Arbitare, the Farr 1106 from Wellington skippered by Murray Hartley and Lawrie Stewart, was ruled out of the race with engine issues. 

The 33-boat Round North Island fleet left Auckland Harbour for Mangōnui on Saturday morning. Photo / Live Sail Die

The 33-boat Round North Island fleet left Auckland Harbour for Mangōnui on Saturday morning. Photo / Live Sail Die

One of the success stories of the first leg was the young team of Anna Merchant and Aaron Hume-Merry, who are celebrating five years as a couple by racing together in their Davidson 40 Southern Fun.

The pair finished first overall in Division 3 and sixth on PHRF overall.

Merchant and Hume-Merry have been planning the race for a number of years and were thrilled with their performance.

"We’re super stoked with the boat and our result. We had a pretty good start up near the windward end and a great tactical beat with Waka (Sam Cremer and Brett Elliott) and Kick (Brendan Sands and Josh Tucker) before we found ourselves in the first real hole of many on the course," said Merchant on the dock in Mangonoui on Sunday, crossing the finish line at 20:32:07.

"We went from fifth overall to 28th, which helped our next move, working up the coast seeking any hint of a land breeze. It was a long slow night but we made some great gains and managed to end the leg on a high."

Husband and wife team Tom and Vicky Jackson are also celebrating a relationship milestone while circling Te Ika-a-Māui aboard their 36-foot fast cruiser Zest.

“Our 50th wedding anniversary happens during this race, and doing a lap of the North Island of New Zealand is our gift to each other,” said Vicky after finishing second in Divison 4 and third overall on PHRF.

Leg 2 of the race started at 10am on Tuesday (February 28) and will take the fleet north around Cape Reinga before heading south down the west coast of North Island, through the treacherous Cook Strait before finishing in the northern Marlborough Sounds.

Results and standings after leg 1 of the 2023 Evolution Sails Round North Island race:

PHRF Overall

1st: Equilibrium (Pete Geary/Angus Small)

2nd: Shimmer 2 (Ben Freedman/Reuben Cameron-Harker)

3rd: Zest (Tom Jackson/Vicky Jackson)

4th: C U Later (Ben Sinton/Chris Skinner)

5th: Southern Fun (Anna Merchant/Aaron Hume-Merry)

Division 1

1st: Equilibrium (Pete Geary/Angus Small)

2nd: Serena (Josh Adams/Ryan Parkin)

3rd: Relapse (Mark Edwards/Ash Edwards)

Division 2

1st: Whichway (Bruce Gault/David Brooke)

2nd: Simply the Best (Chris Dent/Richard Dent)

3rd: Motorboat II (Alan Quere/Vincent Trinquet)

Division 3

1st: Southern Fun (Anna Merchant/Aaron Hume-Merry)

2nd: Waka (Sam Cremer/Brett Elliott)

3rd: Flying Boat (Chris Beaumount/Damon Jolliffe)

Division 4

1st: Shimmer II (Ben Freedman/Reuben Cameron-Harker)

2nd: Zest (Tom Jackson/Vicky Jackson)

3rd: C U Later (Ben Sinton/Chris Skinner)

Full results here.