Hitching a ride with Coutts and Gautier

To say that Russell Coutts and his crew weren’t happy with their first fleet race today would be a massive understatement as the team crossed the finish in last position – yes last.

But from my position crouched on the netting at the back of the boat, the team’s OCS followed by two penalties in the 25 minute race provided the perfect demonstration of both how exhilarating AC45 fleet racing is and how the new system of off-the-water umpiring works in practice when it all goes pear shaped for the team.

The first thing to strike you in the heat of battle is how intense the experience is from the outset. Even in just 6-8 knots of true breeze these boats accelerate like you’ve slammed the accelerator pedal to the floor in a sports car. Unfurl the gennaker for the downwind leg and the speed leaps from 12 on the reaching first leg, to 18 knots downhill as the twin turbos kick in.

When everybody else is doing the same, the closing speeds in the nine boat fleet can be close to 40 knots – that’s quick in anybody’s language. Add to this the constraints of the new electronic zones that the fleet has to stay within and the high speed action downwind is both thrilling and scary in equal measures.

When teams are delivered a penalty, as we were when we fouled another boat in a port and starboard non-contact incident and then strayed outside the zone, the umpires jerked our lead and triggered the orange flashing light aboard our boat to signal that we had to slow down until we had lost two boat lengths.

The result in this race at least, was that despite a concerted effort to haul back the lost distance, Coutts and Co had to swallow a 9th place.

In the third fleet race of the day I sailed with one of the newest teams on the block, Aleph, skippered by Bertrand Pace with offshore rockstar helmsman Alain Gautier at the back of the bus.

This race was the closest of the day and provided yet more disorientating, speed driven action. But there was one thing that stuck in my mind in particular. Having now sailed with four different teams this year, you can feel how many hours each of them has had on the water in these cats simply by the way the boat feels. Aboard the old version 5 lead mine monohulls you had to look closely at the numbers but aboard these lightweight cats the motion alone gives the game away.

Of those that I’ve sailed with so far, Spithill is the master, hardly surprising given the time he’s spent in the last few years with multis. Aboard his boat the motion is smooth and seamless. Aboard others, the stop/start nature and huge course alterations requires you to hang on as the team feels their way up the beats and down the runs.

Yet whether it be with the experts or the new comers, the experience is still breathtaking and highly addictive.