Thursday, June 16, 2011

Still Pinching Myself...

Yesterday I spent some 45 minutes sailing around the future racecourse area for the 34th America’s Cup on an AC45.

Yes, it happened, I was there, and I’m still reeling from the combination of incredible good fortunate to have had the opportunity and the adrenalin rush of pure unadulterated speed. My head is overcrowded with clichés as I try to relive that once in a lifetime experience (see, there I go).

Oh, and did I mention that it was all the more sweet with Russell helming for the first time since his spectacular capsize on Monday, although, I’ll admit to a moment of anxiety when Philippe Presti switched out and Russell jumped on board - the old adage about getting back on the horse came to mind as did Russell’s comments at the earlier press conference that it could take a few more bad decisions to get it right…

When the new Cup regime talked about accessibility, it never occurred to me that would include a Guest Racer Program that actually got folks with a huge range of sailing - or not - experience out on the actual boats that the teams race, particularly this early on in the action. It's almost unprecedented in Cup history, with the exception of the previous highly coveted 17th man position which was as rare to come by as hen’s teeth. For the average punter like myself, one could have perhaps won a 17th seat at a charity auction for thousands of dollars, but…probably not.

Swathed in oversized team foulies, I was delivered by volunteer RIB from the Golden Gate Yacht Club dock out to an ORACLE RIB, as it’s an maneuver unto itself to bring a RIB alongside an AC45 which even in “rest” mode feels like it's dying to cut loose - just pure energy.

On the ORACLE RIB, I chatted it up with bowman Simeon Tienpont, who at 29 is the youngest sailor on the Team. Simeon pointed out a few of the obvious differences between the AC45 and the version 5 Cup boats he's used to. Life on the AC45 is lean and simple, gone are the massive weighty blocks and lines, for example.But, as Tienpont who was onboard for Monday’s capsize pointed out, while the 45 is a reputedly wild and potentially dangerous machine, the case can be made that the sheer loads carried aboard the V-5 boats also did not respond well to bad crew decisions. That’s just what it is at this level.

Another related trade off is that the hefty trimmers required to man the V-5 boats are gone. Agility is the answer to getting quickly and efficiently around the 45. Point in case, after seeing Terry Hutchinson at the presser earlier in the day, he looked like he’d dropped a bunch of weight, not that he needed to, but the guys are getting a massive aerobic workout on the 45.

It was my turn to clamber aboard the 45, I got a quick introduction to the guys on Coutts 5 - Dirk “Cheese” de Ridder, Matt Mason, Phillipe Presti, Simon Daubney and Jonno Macbeth - before being shown my spot behind the aft crossbeam. The only instruction: hold onto to the piece of yellow rubber hosing fixed on the crossbeam. And we shot off on a reach toward the Golden Gate Bridge. I did my own mental safety check, recalling that the only thing to do in the event of a capsize is to hang on. I can’t say there was ever a moment where I was white-knuckled because the sheer excitement was the more overwhelming feeling.

The breeze settled in around 20 knots, it was warm and sunny and Coutts 5 was skimming along like nothing I’ve ever been on - it’s hard to come up with a suitable analogy simply because I’ve never been on the water on anything as fast. In some respects the speed element for me was the feeling of speed I got while getting launched learning to kite surf - that torpedo effect from the water through the air but without the subsequent pain - and kind of like windsurfing more than a being on a sailboat, where you feel the speed more because of your physical proximity to the water. And although it’s incredibly fast, it’s different to being on a powerboat because it’s not a powerboat! It’s just a friggin’ fast sailboat. There’s got to be a huge temptation to play these boats to their edge because the speed is highly addictive.

I didn’t get the feeling that the guys were taking it easy on my account, focused on wind angle and speed as they were. There wasn’t a lot of chat back and forth, going through a tack was business as usual, with the helmsman counting down and the bowman making the first move over to secure the new side and the rest of the guys following with a kind of a bouncing momentum to skip over lines laying on the trampoline and to absorb the spring of the tramp. On the first upwinder a quick glance at the knot meter confirmed we were doing 17.8 and with the breeze pretty consistent, that was about the max upwind speed I saw in my short time on board. The amazing maneuver was turning into the jibe and heading downwind. It happened so fast, so quietly. Within seconds we were hurtling down at 24.5 knots. So fast.

Stan Honey came aboard to make some electronics adjustments - I am sure it was more than just the few squirts of WD40 he applied to something at the bottom of the mast but he did point out the small rectangular shaped box sitting on the starboard side of the fore crossbeam that flashed small red lights - the piece of equipment that communicates with the umpire booth operating back at the club.

The guys began to prepare for the race training session against the other ORACLE AC45 named Spithill. I thought for a moment that perhaps they’d forgotten I was still on board as I tried to make myself invisible. I did not want to get off. I think that kinda says it all.

In reflection, it was an amazing, unforgettable experience, but it brought home that AC45 racing is not sailing 101. In fact, it’s not sailing for probably 90% of the sport’s population. As my friend Craig Leweck said, it’s for those kids who had to take their skateboards to the highest hill and scream down. Good on them, wish I had their guts.

Team pics credit: Gilles Martin-Raget

Author pic: Joan Garrett


  1. AWESOME!!!! I am so jealous you got to go! Great write up

  2. Looks like you had a sweet ride Michelle1! Nice story.

  3. Sooo jealous! Glad you had the chance to take a test ride. :)

  4. Michelle,
    That's so cool you got to ride on the fast machine. Fantastic story.