It’s rare that yachts look bigger on board than from off the boat, but I was bowled over by Comanche, admits Matt
Setting the start line ends in your chart plotter two days before the race may seem a little over eager, but on the 100ft super maxi Comanche it was essential. She might be the world’s fastest monohull after having a set a new 24 hour record of 620nm during her recent race across the Atlantic, (subject to ratification by the World Speed Sailing Council), but when it comes to close quarters manoeuvring she needs space and plenty of it.
Yet by Sunday’s Rolex Fastnet Race start, with a record breaking fleet of 370 boats on the line plus spectators, you can be sure there won’t be much of that.
But there are other problems that the big red supermaxi and her crew have to contend with that you and I might not have considered. Before the race, all competitors are required to pass through an identifying gate, a simple procedure for most.
“There are three gates, but only one will have enough water for us to get through,” explained navigator Stan Honey, “and even then we’re going to have to take it carefully, so I’d like to have look at that a little later on.”
Her draught of 6.50m (21ft 4in) severely limits where she can safely go, making the Solent feel more like a shallow river estuary than the wide expanse of water that it is for most. Even in the deep water channels, traveling at double figure speeds that are her norm, it doesn’t take long to get to the edges.
But it is the sheer size of this boat that grabs you most.
It’s rare that boats look bigger on board than from off the boat, but from the moment I stepped onto her aft quarter where the freeboard is lower, I was bowled over by the expanse of deck in front of me.
Clearly there are other 100 footers around. Two weeks ago I raced aboard Mike Slade’s Leopard, a few years back I sailed Speedboat, (that became Rambler 100 before losing her keel) and yet Comanche feels significantly bigger than both of these and is easily the most impressive.
For starters it is the combination of her 7.80m (25ft 6in) beam and her flat almost featureless foredeck with no coachroof, that sets the scene and confirms immediately why she has been nicknamed the aircraft carrier.
Her mast is set much further back in the boat than is typically the norm making her foredeck look more like a runway, while her giant carbon boom extends all the way to her transom. None of her overall length goes unused, a feature that is driven home when the crew hoisted the first of several sails that were on test for the day.
The carbon, masthead A3 is tacked on the bowsprit while her clew comes pretty much all the way to her stern and presents a giant black wall of sail. Looking to leeward is challenging at best.
In just 8 knots of breeze we were doing 13-14knots at a true wind angle of 135 degrees. Downwind, with the new larger mainsail with it’s huge square top head and the 1,100m2 (11,840ft2) A3 sheeted in and with so little visual clues on the water, it took a while to get orientated. Cranking sails on, to go fast downwind is more like multihull behaviour.
“One of the big things we’ve learned is that we sail this boat like a multihull,” said Read as we gybed our way down the east Solent towards Portsmouth. “It’s one of the misnomers that a wide boat can’t work in light airs. But we heel her over a fair bit as if sailing on the leeward hull and we are fully powered in 6-7 knots.”
This heel angle is also something that takes a little getting used to and that once again emphasizes the size of this boat. From the usual weather rail hiking position we towered above the Solent’s surface and yet strangely I still had a sense of speed as she sliced upwind at 11 knots. Perhaps it was the driving rain that added to the sensation, or maybe the view of the long drop to the leeward side. It was like peering over a balcony at her wake several stories below.
And when talking of views, one of the strangest on Comanche is from her bow looking back to the cockpit where her significant reverse sheer means that you can see little of the cockpit deck gear and only the upper torsos of the crew. It’s like looking over the brow of a hill.
You also realise how little you can hear from her bow. While this is one area in the boat where you can’t hear the huge generator that powers the hydraulics working away like a digger on a building site, you can’t hear the crew either. Hand signals and experience is what counts.
Her deck design has incorporated some new ideas to help with the handling, the most noticeable is an alarm system that kept blaring out just before the noise of the generator eased down.
“We have an audio alarm system for the halyard locks,” explained Read. “We also have a light system to tell us when the halyards are on the locks, but the audio system is a big improvement for us. Everyone can hear it and it’s not only making us more efficient, but it’s saving damage on the locks and wear on the halyards.
Such systems undoubtedly help her 21 strong crew to throw sails up and down as if she was a modern forty footer, even though each sail is so heavy that it has to be craned up onto the side deck.
With powered pit winches this doesn’t involve too much sweat, unlike the sheet and runner winches which are manually driven from the batteries of pedestals, yet each manoeuvre requires careful co-ordination. When it comes to handling, this is a well drilled but relaxed crew. A few words from the back and things just happen with little or no discussion making it easy to underestimate the skill and professionalism that is required. Even Read is surprised by this.
“I spend so much time out on sail trials aboard a wide variety of boats that it knocks me out when I sail with these guys,” he said. “Even when you’ve spotted something, they’ve seen it first and are already dealing with it.”
Staying on top of things is clearly crucial aboard such a potent behemoth. Getting out of control doesn’t bear thinking about.
During the course of our morning trials the crew hoisted, trimmed, checked, logged and packed six or seven different sails, some of them fresh out of their bags for the first time. This in itself was impressive to watch.
Below decks she’s a cavernous carbon shell where once again her massive beam is what strikes you immediately.
Having descended one of two giant companionway entrances set either side of her centreline, the main engine/generator takes centre stage in the accommodation. Further forward lies the galley and beyond that the first of the collision bulkheads.
But what grabs you is how low the headroom is for a boat of this type. That and the number of large transverse structural members that make going forward more of a hurdles event than you might have expected.
Elsewhere there are eight hinging pipe cot bunks either side, strung up as far outboard and as close to the underside of the deck as is possible while the navigation station is wedged under the cockpit sole and behind the companionway steps.
On deck I had joked with Honey who was wearing a caving type head torch that the English summer may not be that good but that it also wasn’t night time just yet.
“It’s always night time down there,” he replied.
I could see what he meant.
But for me the highlight of the day was when Read offered me the helm.
“Just don’t hit anyone,” he joked.
Easy for him to say, as we barreled towards a wall of sail strung out across the entrance to the western Solent. With various fleets sailing downwind with their kites set while others beat off their line, you may get a good view of the task ahead but it’s a daunting one when you’re traveling at three times their speed.
Nevertheless, helming Comanche was an intoxicating experience. While you’re acutely aware of her size as you thread your way through ‘normal’ boats, she also feels like she’s shrunk as she picks up speed. Light and responsive there is little sense of her 31 tonnes through either of her carbon wheels, just a feeling of power and urgency as her speed changed with every subtle move of the helm.
Once you get used to the more neutral feel of her twin rudders, it takes no time to get into the groove.
It takes even less time to see why 20 of the world’s top sailors who have ‘been there/done that’ on many previous extreme boats, still seem as excited as teenagers on a field trip.
I had been excited all week at the prospect of just sailing her, now the only thing that I was disappointed about was that I wasn’t joining them for the race.