- Elaine Bunting
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Full tilt with Jimmy Spithill
When I was invited to sail as a guest racer with the America's Cup World Series on Oracle 4 with Jimmy Spithill and his crew, my colleague Matt Sheahan laughed. "Bring your brown trousers," he chortled.
So I took along the modern day 'technical legwear' equivalent, quick-dry three-quarter length trousers, and hoped that with a forecast of less wind than last weekend they would be practical enough. But I can tell you that even in 10-12 knots of wind these boats raced full pelt are heartstopping.
As a guest racer, you are suited up at the team base, given gloves, kneepads and a helmet and transferred on board a few minutes before the start. Your place is on a small strip of trampoline just behind the aft beam. You are given precise instructions about what not to touch - mainly the runners, which are disconcertingly in front of you at head level.
Your sole job is to hang on and not fall off.
This is surprisingly hard to do. These boats can stop quickly but they also accelerate at lightning speed and the heel angle can change equally rapidly. So if you take your hands off the rope handles attached to the aft beam for you to hold on to, there's a good chance you could topple off. If you do, the crew aren't coming back to get you.
Shirley Robertson, who was a guest racer on Russell Coutt's Oracle 5 in the same race, perspicaciously observed that it is probably a matter of time before a guest rolls off. "They are going to lose a fat banker," she laughed.
So off we went, with Jimmy Spithill and his crew tracing the race boundary. For each race GPS co-ordinates mark out the extent of the course. There are penalties for going outside and a panel with lights on board flashes to show proximity to the edge. Today, one side of the boundary hunted the shoreline off the Hoe; the other ran round the moorings at Drake's Island.
The first thing to say about the crew work on Jimmy Spithill's boat is that there was no shouting or excitement, no expletives. Tactician John Kostecki was calm too. But it was hard to make out exactly what was being said, and at times what was happening.
The loud whine of wind off the windward rudder and the chatter of the runner block bearings, as well as the rush of wind as you accelerate to 15 knots and beyond, drown out conversation and snatch words away. I struggled to hear what was being said. Occasionally Jimmy Spithill would count down "3, 2, 1", but to what I couldn't be sure - until it happened.
We got a fantastic start, first across the line on a reach, but from the first mark the fleet splits right across the leeward and windward legs. Boats can tack or gybe right or left through the gates and so the play is a little disorientating. With such huge differences in boatspeed in the gusts it can be difficult to work out who has got the edge.
The most dramatic aspect of the racing is the speed at which close quarters situations develop. Crossing speeds in excess of 20 knots, with boats heeled and one hull flying, make distances and times terrifyingly hard for the uninitiated to estimate. Not so for these skippers, fortunately - at one point Loick Peyron dipped our stern with literally inches to spare.
It's the same at mark roundings. The gate marks are small motorboats, which we passed within a coat of paint. On the first leeward gate rounding Jimmy Spithill bore away and flew the windward hull so high to make it through that I thought half of Oracle 4 was going to soar overhead the mark boat. Spithill plonked the hull down with seconds to spare.
There are only five crew on board pulling a lot of rope - gennaker halyards, furling lines, etc - and what's also interesting about these boats is how slick the crew work is. At this level, I guess you'd expect it to be polished, but it's impressive to see someone carrying out an athletic feat such as crossing the trampoline with just enough bounce to clear the central spine with a hop, uncleating the wingmast twist control, and loading up jib sheet and runner winches all at a run.
As for exactly what happened on our race today, and how we went from first at the start to fourth by the finish, I'm not quite so sure. I'll have to watch the video and piece it together. The pace of racing and the divergence of boats between tacks and gybes makes it hard to figure out what's going on all the time, a feeling that is exaggerated when you are sitting out of the communication loop.
But exciting? Oh yes. I can honestly say a 40-minute race never passed so quickly as this one. And when I stepped off I hadn't even got wet, not even my shoes. Certainly not my trousers. Thanks, Jimmy and his crew John Kostecki, Dirk de Ridder, Joey Newton and Piet van Niewuhuyzen.
A video of it all is coming up tomorrow...
Photo : Guilain GRENIER / ORACLE Racing / www.oracleracingmedia.com