Sometimes you don’t need to race to be hooked on a new high performance boat as I found out when I was handed the helm of a brand new grand prix 40 footer in our tune up for day three of Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week
I was only joking at the crew briefing on day three of Cowes Week when I said I would prefer to sit opposite the carbon tiller than be wedged into the aftermost corner of the sidedeck.
But as we headed out of the Medina aboard Invictus, the brand new Ker 40 an hour before our start in Class Zero, her owner Sir Keith Mills handed me the helm.
“Here, Matt, have a go,” he said handing me the tiller.
There was no need to be asked twice. Not only is this another exciting forty footer to be launched in the UK this year and a boat I have had my eye on this summer, but she is crewed by top pros who only know one mode once the dock lines are slipped.
To them, every mark, is a potential target and an opportunity to practice a manoeuvre. Every wind shift is a chance to check settings and every clean stretch of water a means to dial into the numbers. No time is wasted. The benefit for me was that for the next 30-40 mins before the start we would be sailing her like we were racing, fully hiked and fully focused.
As crew boss and tactician Rob Greenhalgh set out the plan, to sail upwind to East Lepe for a port rounding and bear away set, mainsheet trimmer David Lenz gave me a quick run down of the target numbers.
“We think the upwind target is a bit high at 8.2, 7.5 to 7.8 is more like it and you’ll see this comes at about 18-22 degrees heel,” he said. “Press a little harder on the jib and you’ll be there.”
Just a few degrees on the helm was all it took before the numbers popped up, the helm load increased slightly and Invictus felt locked into her new pace.
Sailing modern grand prix boats by feel is often far more difficult than you might expect. Some are so light on the helm that there is little, if any feedback to guide you to the best settings. Others can be very deceptive as the loads come on so quickly after little apparent change that you think the rudder stock has seized.
But not Invictus. Her helm loads up more gradually as if the boat is guiding you. Until that is, you realise how much the trimmers are controlling the boat. An extra wind on the mainsheet winch, a tweak here or dump there can change the feel significantly as if someone has just turned the autopilot on. But when you’re being guided upwind by the experts you can learn the feel quickly.
Helming a grand prix boat is a team effort – and I was loving it.
As we tacked onto starboard on our practice leg into the windward mark the lay line looked thin to me, even with two knots of tide sweeping us up towards it. But with a sheeting angle so narrow that it looks as if the jib clew has been nailed to the mast, understanding and feeling her tacking angles placed me on another steep but short learning curve.
The call was, of course, spot on.
Now it was time to concentrate on the rounding.
“Flatten the boat a shade to allow the guys off the rail, then you’re looking for 155 true for the hoist,” called Rob Greenhalgh then listen to Pete (Greenhalgh) who’ll talk you downhill.”
With that, the whirr of the grinder pedestal fired up like a small four stroke engine at the back of the boat as the head of the large A2 shot up to the masthead.
“Hold, hold, hold……ok up two,” said kite trimmer Pete who had swapped places with Dave the main trimmer and was now talking me down the run.
“That’s good, let the speed build, down one on this puff…hold, up one, trim, hold, speed build, down one, yup you’re locked in….
As I listened to his calls, while trying to anticipate the best route over each wave, the speed was holding at a steady 14-16 knots with the occasional burst to 17. The feel on the helm had now firmed up as Invictus came onto the plane and required just tiny movements to keep her on the boil.
“Gybing in five, four, three….,” called Rob.
I looked across the cockpit, it’s a long way to the leeward side and even further when you know that the one person that could knock you and the rest of the crew off their feet with one misplaced jab of the helm is you. But as Rob called me down into the bear away I tried to keep the movement steady and smooth. Messing up here would be embarrassing and potentially costly.
But as we came out the other side and heated her up, all was good and she leapt back up onto the plane as the calls from trimmer Pete continued.
“Next mark is Gurnard, a gybe drop then back onto the breeze,” announced Rob to the crew. A tricky turn at best but with two knots of tide running against us, a gaff rigged cruising boat crossing the mark on starboard like a pensioner on a zebra crossing and a bigger cruiser bearing down on us from above like a bus in the outside lane, suddenly I had more visual clues as to what 16 knots meant as our route to the mark closed in.
Concentrating on the transit as the tide swept us sideways, while trying to anticipate our path through the cruisers without spinning out, was my main concern and for a few seconds made me blind to the crews’ preparations for the drop.
‘Just don’t get this wrong,’ I thought as I looked at the tidal wake streaming of the large metal buoy.
But once we started the turn it was clear once again that steering was another team effort. As the main and jib came in she carved her way around the mark with little load on the tiller, winding herself onto the breeze in sync with Dave’s mainsheet trim.
Back on the breeze, crew on the rail, up to numbers for a final short upwind check before easing the jib and heading back to the start line we had completed our practice run for the morning.
As I handed the helm back to Keith I was hooked, who wouldn’t be.