Riding shotgun with Ben Ainslie and Land Rover BAR during the first of two practice days left Matthew Sheahan buzzing and unable to sleep
As we hammered our way downwind, smoking along at thirty-something knots, aside from the deafening noise, the force of the salty water in my face as the windward foil hit the waves and a ride that felt like all our wheel nuts had been loosened, the thing that struck me most was how much the leeward daggerboard was moving fore and aft. Nerdy I know, but I had no idea there was that much slack in the system – how on earth did the boat feel as ‘stable’ as it did with wobbly boards?
“That’s Ben adjusting the trim on the downwind leg,” said crew member Paul Campbell-James afterwards.
“You’re kidding!” I replied. “But the board was all over the place, was he that nervous?!”
I knew the answer, of course he wasn’t, I just couldn’t imagine how on earth you feel the boat and select what ride height was required second by second and to that degree when it feels like all hell has broken loose. Like patting your head and rubbing your belly while being dragged feet first by a jeep off road, trimming a daggerboard and helming a 45ft wing-masted weapon wouldn’t come naturally to most of us – But it clearly does to these guys.
I had joined Ainslie and his Land Rover BAR crew for one of the practice races for the practice race proper on Friday here in Bermuda.
That might sound odd, but under the class rules, teams are not allowed to sail their AC45f boats more than two days before the start of each AC World Series event. As a result all the teams take the opportunity very seriously indeed, especially those like SoftBank Team Japan, Emirates Team New Zealand and Groupama, teams that don’t have access to a development boat in between events. For them, the season has involved just six days of practice in total.
With that in mind it’s impressive that they get their boats around the course like they do, especially the Kiwis who are currently leading the series.
But the bottom line is that there is no tactical sand bagging here, a practice for the practice is for real and these teams race like their lives depend on it. Which at times feels quite apt.
Over the years I have been very fortunate to have sailed all kinds of high performance boats, including various foiling cats. But even though the sensation of speed never ceases to raise a smile, the most buttock clenching moments come when you’re racing, in particular when you’re coming in on port and closing on a line of starboard tackers. Even upwind, when you’re ‘only’ doing 18-20knots, the closing speed, the narrow angles and the rate at which the boat accelerates the minute the helmsman bears away, is enough to have you looking bravely the other way! It’s amazing how interesting something upwind is at the crucial moment of the cross.
Downwind it’s even more scary.
At 28-30knots when Oracle came in on the starboard lay, with us closing in on port, it was clear that they had not left room for us to gybe inside them and make the lay too. Top pros don’t leave gates open for their opponents like that. But the thought of heating our boat up to get over Oracle’s stern seemed like a big ask too, especially aboard a boat that with just five crew feels permanently under-staffed.
The air of urgency isn’t helped by the fact that the background noise is such that the only way to communicate is to shout, which makes every call sound like a full scale emergency. I’ve sailed with some of these guys quite a lot over the years, they don’t shout. But they did here, and to do so felt rather unsettling.
But needs must and it makes you realise once again how much the game has moved on. Simply misinterpreting a yell from the leeward side could spell disaster – and they know it.
“Communication is tough,” said tactician and trimmer Giles Scott. “You’ve got to be so careful about how you make calls to make sure that they can’t be misinterpreted. You’d think that comms systems would be the answer, but we’re not confident that they are just yet.”
How effective their communication was, was a matter for them. I just watched, slacked jawed while being force fed warm salt water as it sprayed off the windward foil. The leeward mark roundings were the most dramatic and given the amount of water that I swallowed during the rounding, for the first time I felt like even being a passenger was being part of the crew.
The bottom line is that sailing one of these machines is a deeply intoxicating experience. I wasn’t expecting it to affect me quite so much, but six hours after coming off the water I really am still buzzing. And I wasn’t expecting that.
The fact that even I want more makes me realise what’s driving these crews.
Buzzing, I’m not going to sleep – I can’t!