What is it really like to sail an AC75 every day? INEOS Team UK grinder David Carr reveals what life is like in Ben Ainslie’s America's Cup crew
“When you push off the dock, your life is in the hands of computers – and the guy piloting the boat out of the water, of course. All the systems on the boat, other than the winches rattling around, rely on computers.
“You’re very aware that you are now sailing a boat that wholly relies on computer code. But I guess when you’re sitting in an airplane at 40,000 feet, it’s exactly the same.”
This is life onboard an AC75, the flying yachts which will be used to challenge for the 2021 America’s Cup. David Carr, or ‘Freddie’ as everyone calls him, is one of Britain’s most experienced America’s Cup sailors and grinder on INEOS Team UK.
This is his fifth Cup campaign, having been part of GBR Challenge in the IACC yachts back in 2003. He shifted from big boats to cats for the Extreme Sailing Series, then moved onto the foiling catamarans of the 2013 and 2017 Cup cycles. He talks to Helen Fretter about life as part of the AC75 crew for Ben Ainslie’s British challenge.
A surreal mix
Can anything really prepare you for flying a 75ft monohull? No, not in the slightest. I feel that I come from a privileged position, having sailed the old IACC classes, and I’ve gone through this change in the Cup over the last ten years moving into foiling cats.
Now, with these AC75s, we’ve got a complete mixture of the two. We’ve got a yacht that foils, so it’s taken the two generations of the America’s Cup world that I’ve lived in and shoved them together.
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When I get on the boat, part of me feels like I’m stepping onto a Mini Maxi to go yacht racing. Then all of a sudden you’re doing 40 knots and back in that dinghy sailing mode. It’s such a strange combination.
The loads are now massive, going through all the sheets, the forestay loads, headstay, runners. We’re back in 20 tonne loads that you would associate with traditional yacht racing. But then the boat just releases and goes ripping, and it is an unbelievable speed.
With the AC72 catamarans in 2013, and then in Bermuda on the AC50, you were very much standing on top of the platform, but you felt very connected with the boat; you could look through the trampoline and over the side. You could see the water rushing past, so you had a good idea of boatspeed. And you could hear the foils really well – you could tell how fast you were going by listening to the pitch of the squeal.
Now, with these 75-footers, if you can feel and see the environment, you’re in the wind and that’s slowing the boat down. So it’s unlike any boat I’ve ever sailed in terms of feeling, for the vast majority of the crew.
The aim is for two or three guys to have a view of what we’re about to sail in, and then everybody else not to really. The trimmers obviously need to see the sails, Giles [Scott, tactician] and Ben need to be able to read the water, but the rest of us are playing a game of getting out of the wind; it’s about tucking the grinders away.
And what that does mean is a big disconnect from the environment you’re sailing in so you heavily rely on the data stream coming into your display to see what state of play the boat is in for sail trim, energy, positions of appendages. So, it’s a funny day out when you sail these boats.
If you’ve got everything dialled in really well, it’s a really smooth platform. The pitch and heel and the kind of heave of the boat, the way that it’s sitting above the water – you feel very little. But what you really feel in the corners that I’ve never felt in the small cats, is the G-forces are huge. The rate of turn in the tacks and gybes is very fast, and you do get thrown around your cockpit a lot, which is quite good fun!
Fundamentally the liveliest point of sail is the bear away, where you’re going through the power zone, turning downwind. That’s where the mainsheet trimmer, Iain Jensen, Ben and the pilot have to be perfectly in control. Now, if they are in control, they rip the boat away and you are seeing massive speeds, they have to ease very little sail and we’re off downwind.
But if one of those three is slightly out of whack with each other, you can have a pretty hairy day out. You can have a big touchdown and there’s plenty of water coming over the deck.
For the grinders, we are back in that world of moving hydraulic oil, so it’s good that it is written within the rules that we have winches to tack and gybe jibs and Code 0 sails from side to side. I must say, from a personal point of view, it’s nice to rattle a winch.
It just feels like sailors should hold ropes. Rightly or wrongly, I think it’s a good look! And it’s something that the wider sailing community can look at and relate to, versus a bunch of guys moving hydraulic pumps, which doesn’t necessarily translate through the sport.
But in terms of what I do, we have generic tactical stuff on our displays, and then you have a specific part of your display to tell you about what you’re controlling.
We have power meters on our handles and our live heart rate at all times, and with the amount of training that we do in the gym we’ve got very, very aware of where we can sit in terms of heart rate zones, and what that means in terms of the power going into the handles.
So I just completely look at my iPad. For a 30 minute race, I am measuring my heart rate for my effort into the pumps, because I want to make sure that I’m sitting in a zone where I know I’m producing good wattages to keep the boat flying nicely. I’m looking at the energy state of the boat and I’m looking at the bits that I’m trimming.
Every manoeuvre, which will be a maximum of every 90 seconds – and if you’re sailing tactically on shifts you might be flicking around every 30 seconds – you’re going to be close to your max power output for 20 seconds. Then it’s all about how well you can recover before the next big hit.
Putting the hours in
Before the coronavirus hit we had an amazing block of training time down in Cagliari. Ben and I would joke that it was like old-school Cup tuning days. It reminded me a little bit of 2007 [with Victory Challenge] when we would push off the dock and be out at sea for eight, nine hours.
When you were two-boat testing in 2007 you would just sail and sail and sail. You’d adjust one small thing on one boat and sail and sail again. Now we’ve got very good at breaking down the day into smaller training blocks. But if we have a really good day on the water, the designers and the performance team will have five hours of data to pick their way through, ready for the debrief the next day.
We have a rotation of grinders. You do get tired, so the maximum you’ll do sailing at any one time is about 90 minutes. Then you’ll peel out, have an energy bar and drink, and watch and learn from the RIB. You’ve still got all the communication going into your ears from the yachts and the designers, and then you’ll step back on and sail again.
It’s important that we always do every [training] manoeuvre as a race manoeuvre and actually the harder you attack the manoeuvre, the safer it is. Quite often in these foiling boats it’s when you do a lazy tack or a lazy gybe that you actually become unstuck. But there is a lot of straight line stuff. Ultimately, the fastest boat is going to win the Cup and that formula will never change. Maybe a slight thing that’s changed is the boundaries. Whereas ten years ago you could come off the start line and the navigator would say: “15 minutes on this tack, 15 minutes on the other,” now there’s definitely more emphasis on re-acceleration.
As a grinding unit we quite like to push for some ‘hot laps’ at the end of the day. A hot lap is where you put some boundaries out, take all of your learning from that day, and then you chuck it onto a racecourse and do some hot laps. That basically means two to three windward-leewards, and you just keep going. So if you have a bad gybe or you’ve got to reaccelerate, you’ve just got to imagine that you’re racing another boat and push through to the finish. It’s a nice way to tick off a day.
The sport jumped when we started foiling, and certainly by 2017 it had turned into a proper endurance sport. In the last Cup cycle there was a group of us that had to have a level of metabolic, Crossfit-style conditioning to sail the World Series boats – which was great fun, hiking and top handling winches and hoisting Code 0s. This time round, without that small-boat World Series, we have turned into a grinding squad and we do so much grinding volume in the gym it’s phenomenal.
We basically just cycle with our arms the whole time. In fact [some] of the boys, if they were to cycle on a Wattbike for an hour and cycle on a Wattbike with their arms for an hour, they would do better with their arms than with their legs! We’ve got a funny looking group right now. Strength is important, but a lot of our strength training is there for injury prevention. We’re not necessarily trying to get really good at bench pressing. But if you’re lifting weights and have good form and a reasonable level of strength, then it’s basically a good level of injury prevention.
If we’re doing a high volume block of training we could be three hours on the grinder in the gym, broken down into two sessions, maybe four times a week. So you could be close to 15 hours of grinding in the gym before you’ve sailed. If we’re doing a training block to increase our lactate tolerance, then those hours would reduce, but the minutes that we do at a higher heart rate go through the roof. They’re the nasty weeks when you’re working close to max heart rate; they’re when you want to be having a good night’s sleep.
Another day in the office?
Go downstairs on Britannia 1 and it feels like you could be in a space shuttle getting blasted off to the moon. The amount of computer programming and logic that goes into sailing the boats is mind blowing. And because of that, the learning curve for all of us is so steep. The saying that every day’s a school day couldn’t run more true for this project at the moment.
If you’re not sharp every day, if you’re not taking in information and learning and discussing and knocking the ball around for ideas with your sailing teammates and the designers and the shore crew, then I think the day it becomes just another day at the office is the day you stop developing. And that’s when the boat’s not going fast. I personally have never had that day yet. Maybe, hopefully, we’ll get there about a week before the Cup, because that’s when a lot of the development will be done. But right now, the learning curve is vertical.
The AC75 is a true reflection of the last 20 years of the America’s Cup. It is almost like a foiling IACC class. Previously the catamarans felt like you were on a twitchy little dinghy most of the time, whereas this is definitely a foiling yacht. It is insane. It’s when you’re not sailing the boat but are in the RIB chasing it that you can actually look at what it’s doing and you’re like: ‘What on earth?’
America’s Cup schedule
- Auckland America’s Cup World Series – 17-20 December 2020
- The Prada Cup (Challenger Series) – January 15-22 February, 2021
- The America’s Cup – 6-21 March, 2021
Where now for the America’s Cup challengers?
The Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand
New Zealand is famously one of the first countries in the world to declare itself COVID-19 free. However, the ETNZ squad was unable to sail for most of the lockdown period, as they’d despatched their AC75 Te Aihe, along with 16 containers packed with equipment and chase boats, to Europe for the planned Cagliari and Portsmouth events. The shipment was sent straight back from Italy, arriving in Auckland at the end of May. The Kiwi team, meanwhile, began training with a scaled down ‘surrogate’ boat.
New Zealand currently has stringent border restrictions and the host team now has the huge advantage of losing no further time in transport and quarantine.
The Challenger of Record, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli
The Italian Challengers were preparing to host the first opportunity for the four AC75s to race against one another when Italy became one of Europe’s earliest COVID-19 hotspots. Despite stringent lockdown, the team was able to continue some construction work and was the first to launch for ‘socially distanced’ training, with additional power sources and remote controls replacing up to six crew members.
“Sailing a 75ft boat that sails at 40-45 knots with only five people on board managing it is impressive. A lot of work has been done to allow us to continue developing,” reported Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena in April.
INEOS Team UK
INEOS Team UK relaunched its first AC75, Britannia 1, in the UK in the first week of June. “We have placed an e-grinder on the boat,” explained skipper Ben Ainslie. “That is effectively a large battery pack which reduces the requirement of the number of crew on the boat [and] enables us space out as much as possible.”
The second British boat is reported to be on schedule at Jason Carrington’s build facility in Hythe, in the UK, due to be launched in New Zealand in October. The UK and US teams have been granted NZ entry visas.
American Magic faced multiple challenges: unable to train out of their US base in Pensacola, Florida due to COVID-19 restrictions, but unable to remain there until lockdown was lifted. “We can’t stay in Pensacola due to the approach of hurricane season,” explained skipper Terry Hutchinson.
The team took a gamble to ship its first 75, Defiant, to New Zealand before the country’s entry rules were confirmed – but have now had their visas confirmed. Meanwhile, the team’s second AC75 is being built in Rhode Island, and will also be commissioned in New Zealand.
First published in the August 2020 edition of Yachting World.