Matthew Sheahan hitches three rides at the Superyacht Cup in Palma 20/6/07
As twenty of the 52 strong fleet approached the third mark of the course from all angles of the compass, it was clear that this was not going to be as simple a mark rounding as the sailing instructions had suggested.
In the interests of safety, the racing rules had been replaced by the international collision regulations. There was to be no luffing, or indeed any other type of tactical racing move. Unfortunately, the col regs don’t cover overlaps and calling for water at the mark and they certainly don’t outlaw one boat trying to slip their way through on the inside at the mark when a gap opens up at the last minute. Whether the racing rules would have made the situation any clearer is uncertain – Cowes Week is famous for mass mark roundings like these, although the financial risks aren’t quite so high.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed and each of the boats, worth upwards of £10 million apiece, kept their noses clean, albeit with fenders out just in case. Nevertheless, the scene remained largely one of chaos with those who’d rounded the mark, blocking the path of others attempting to do so. Among the throng, the stately J Class Velsheda looked more like a senior citizen trying to cross a busy road as she took three attempts to get back to the mark as she struggled to cross the stream of superyacht traffic.
The concertina situation had arisen thanks to a battle between the developing sea breeze and a decent gradient from the opposite direction, that had created a huge windless hole in the middle of the second leg and an enormous trap for the fleet. Many of the leading boats stumbled straight into its path. Those chasing up from behind tried to skirt around the windless zone. Whichever route boats took, the result was a reshuffle and a re-start at the third mark of the course.
In theory, pursuit races, where the slowest start first and the fastest last, will provide a spectacular finish with everyone arriving at more or less the same time. Each of the three races that made up the Superyacht Cup were organised as such, but few had expected the repack of the fleet this early. But as the breeze built for the final upwind leg to the finish, crews were treated to a rare sight as 52 of the largest and most spectacular boats in the world sailed in close proximity to each other in 15-20 knots of breeze for the last 5 miles. The view was breathtaking.
When yachts like Valsheda stand out first for their classic beauty rather than their size, it’s clear that your perspective has been distorted, a point that hit home when the pencil like hull of the super maxi Wild Oats slid by to weather. One hundred feet LOA has never looked so small.
Aside from being overtaken by this flat out racing machine, sailing aboard Peter Harrison’s 115 ketch Sojana treated us to a great view of the fleet as we sliced our way upwind at 11-12 knots, passing classics and multi storey superyachts on our way.
The previous day had been far lighter with just 6-7 knots of breeze for the first upwind leg, but for me at least, the race was no less dramatic.
Sailing aboard the latest of the J Class boats, Ranger, fresh from a substantial re-fit earlier this year to try to achieve the performance that this boat was famous for, the first race of the Superyacht Cup was the first time the crew had had a chance to line up against another J.
There is no love lost between the owners of Velsheda and Ranger who are former business partners, and despite several attempts at setting up a training or tuning match, the pairing had never happened. Instead, and in a way that is uncannily similar to the America’s Cup where much is revealed in the opening minutes, the first nautical mile was a tense affair aboard both boats. A true head to head between two truly beautiful boats.
Just 10 minutes later and the score for the day had been set, Ranger 1, Velsheda 0.
But it was the third and final day that had eyes popping and jaws dropping for the entire fleet as a solid 18-20 knot sea breeze provided spectacular conditions for the armada to barrel around the course.
While sailing aboard the other two boats was every bit as exciting as I had expected, sailing aboard Kokomo, the biggest sloop at the event took me completely by surprise.
The numbers alone mean little. She’s 52m (171ft) LOA with a 63m (206ft) mast, so what? But to see how she is sailed by her highly professional team of Farr 40 sailors, led at the wheel by her owner Lang Walker was an eye opener.
As we came into the leeward mark with our 1,500m2 (17,000ft2,?..yes 17,000ft2) asymmetric spinnaker set out to starboard it started to look as if we had gybed too early and couldn’t get down to round the mark to port. Having seen and sensed the anxiety in the build up to the gybe, (a manoeuvre that was performed with expert precision), I could not believe what I was hearing as the crew call for the mark rounding.
A’ Mexican’ (Kiwi) drop where the kite is dropped onto the deck on the new windward side as the boat is gybed?! This I had to see. Such a complex move isn’t called the deck sweep for nothing.
As it was, a favourable shift made the move unnecessary, but the crew work remained superb in a mark rounding that was just 30 seconds or a few boat lengths away from the cliffs on the lee shore.
Sometimes with superyachts, it’s best not to think about too many of the possible scenarios.
Normal rules aren’t always the best in this extraordinary corner of the sailing world.