Chris Nicholson and crew finished leg 1 fourth but had plenty to smile about on reaching Cape Town
Having witnessed the contentment among the first three crews, I had expected the next wave of finishers to be increasingly downbeat as they hit the dock here in Cape Town. Dropped by the leading pack their last 1,000 miles had offered little opportunity to get back into the race.
But in the heat of the close racing before hand I had temporarily forgotten how late Chris Nicholson’s Vestas Wind had been hitting the water. Sure, they would liked to have held onto a third or even better, but the reality was that the Vestas Wind crew considered themselves lucky to even be on the leg in the first place so late was their call to compete.
“We started our race the day we signed the agreement with Vestas,” said Chris Nicholson as he sliced into his steak. “I’m not kidding, just to do this leg was a reward for the effort that was put in at such short notice to allow this campaign to happen in just three months.”
But there was more, much more, to this story than simply a late launch.
“We’ve done pretty much the entire race on our on deck tablet computer,” said race veteran Rob Salthouse. “The first computer went down on the first night and the second on the third day out. We managed to get a part of it working again, but getting weather data was very difficult and slow. There were points during the race where we seemed to lose most of the rest of our electronics too.”
In such a tactical and close knit race, sailing blind was particularly tricky, but even then the team had plenty of other issues to contend with.
“The only offshore experience two of our younger crew members had was on the delivery from the UK to Alicante,” continued Nicholson. “And when it came to testing or producing polars, we simply didn’t have time to do any of that before we left. The result was that we were having to try out sail and boat trim combinations that we suspected wouldn’t work, but we had to do it to learn and build a picture of the boat’s performance. We had to learn on the fly.
“Having said that we’re around 60 percent there with our polars and we don’t expect to have too many heavy loses with sail combinations in the future, but man the leg was tough in that respect.”
But one of Nicholson’s key advantages, is a deep rooted intuitive feel for what is quick, a skill that is validated by his multiple world championship titles in the 49er (3) and 505 (1). Yet he’s quick to point to the younger members of the crew who don’t have the offshore miles of veterans such as himself, Rob Salthouse and Tony Rae, but do bring what Ncholson describes as a ‘fresh approach’.
“One example is when it comes to daggerboard settings,” he explains. “We don’t have sufficiently sophisticated instruments to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong on these boats, so feel is important. The trouble is that the more experienced members of the crew are more likely to place it in a setting out of habit, whereas the younger guys do it simply by feel.”
Among those who he refers to is Tom Johnson, a foiling Moth and 49er sailor. For him, sailing with instruments is almost a novelty.
But there’s one aspect that Nicholson is clearly delighted, (and probably more likely relieved) with and that is the way that the crew has gelled.
“One of the best things we have going for us is that I now know for sure that we have a very good team. I now that sounds obvious but my experience of these races tells me that you can have people with impressive CV’s but the most important thing is for crew to get on and work well together.
“At this stage of the race it’s easy to be all smiles, but I promise you, in six months time there will be teams that are splintering. It could have been us on this leg if we had had a bad result, but I’m very happy with how that side of things went.
“This race has a reputation for being a full pressure cooker and a key to success is about who can keep the lid on best.”
And presumably keep smiling.