Helmsmen and tacticians at the Superyacht Cup in Palma talk frankly about the thrills and skills needed to throw gleaming multimillion dollar yachts around the race course

From the towering masts of the 52m schooner Meteor to the carbon bladed racing Baltic 108 WinWin to the fabulous J Class, the 13 yachts taking part this week in the Superyacht Cup in Palma illustrate the extraordinary diversity of superyacht racing.

Big boat racing has become more serious and polished as crews push some of the world’s purest pleasure machines to their maximum. It is not only a fantastic spectacle in Palma Bay, it is also a demonstration of some finely honed skills, no less than one would see in the most elite areas of the sport.

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The fleet is studded with talent from former Volvo sailor to ex America’s Cup crews. This is a realm in which wide experience, especially on maxis and big boats, really counts. Many of these race crews have been together for decades.

Dutch sailor Bouwe Bekking, who has raced in no less than eight Volvo Ocean Races, is helmsman on the 34m Baltic 112 Nilaya. He and a regular race crew are intent on sailing the boat to her optimum, and he is adamant that the skills are little different to any other top race

The only thing different is that these boats are heavier, you sail with way more crew and of course some things don’t go so fast. Otherwise you race as hard as any other boat. And I think that’s the attitude you have to have,” he says.

They say you earn your trophies during the training and in the racing you pick them up. In big boats you have to train a lot and go for the manoeuvres and do them a lot of times. That’s where you make gains.

A Volvo Ocean Race boat is maybe more agile because it’s lighter but the racing is the same. It’s still people management and communications that are important.

On the big boats, I have a comms system, the bowman had a comms system and two people in the pit. I have to be sure when I ask for something that the message is getting back to everyone.”

Nilaya has two big rivals in her class: the always well sailed Baltic 105 WinWin, and Wally 107 Open Season. WinWin won today and looks set to triumph in her class for the third year running.

On board is British navigator Mike Broughton. Ask him what the differences are between superyacht racing and any other kind and you get a similar answer to Bekking’s.

“Absolutely nothing,” he says.

“I am spared a bit more time to concentrate on the refinements of data. If you’re on the rail of a Fast 40, you’ve got a lot of things going on.

“You’re thinking: are we losing guage? Does the bearing and the course over the ground match? Is the wind shifting in a tack? I’ve got a little bit more capacity to work on things.

“But the real answer is nothing – in a dinghy or a superyacht. Just on a superyacht you have a few more toys.”

Working as a team

But there are some key differences, ones that might actually make this style of racing more challenging, in a few different ways. For one thing, race crews are joining the permanent crew, and owners’ friends and family. To race well, they all have to gel, and work effectively as a team.

We have six permanent crew, and the owner has seven or eight friends,” says Bekking.

I have been sailing with [the owner] since his Swan 56, 18 years ago. One of his friends is helping with the spinnaker, another helping upwind, one is number three on the foredeck, so they all have jobs, and they enjoy themselves; they are all good sailors. And it’s their holiday.

That’s the really important thing you have to find the balance of. It’s always nice to integrate people who are maybe not professional sailors into the crew. For myself as well as the owner: make it a good team.

The sheer numbers of people on board these large yachts make communication important, and equipment, protocols and practice are vital.

Nowhere is this more so than on the J Class yachts. These empresses of the race course are superb sights, elegant and refined, but beneath the picture perfect image are yachts that top helmsman Peter Holmberg describes as “beasts”.

Holmberg is steering Topaz, the new J Class built to a 1935 Frank Paine design and launched in 2015. She is one of two in this year’s Superyacht Cup, the other being the superbly raced Velsheda, considered by aficionados to be a benchmark in the class.

“There’s 30 crew so you have to orchestrate carefully to do every manoeuvre,” explains Holmberg.

“The boat is a traditional, full keeled, hung rudder boat that has very limited feel to it so just getting all the bits right – the timing, the orchestration, the decision – and then sail the boat to its peak potential is one of the hardest possible boats to do that.”

The mighty J Class

When Holmberg got the call to steer Topaz, he thought about the experience he could bring to bear in this most famous but idiosyncratic class.

“The foremost thing is how difficult it is, and that’s what we enjoy about it. It is such a difficult machine to sail safely, and then to reach its full potential. We love that challenge of how to figure out how to make it go fast,” he says.

“Figuring out how to manoeuvre this thing properly, accurately, is the ultimate challenge.

“They act so slowly. The response time of a turn on the wheel, you’ve just got to guess where the boat’s going to turn. You have a sense of what you can do, so when I try to miss them or round a mark I’m really guessing and trying to accurately predict how this beast is going to behave. It’s like dogfighting in 747s.

“But we put it right in there, we’re metres apart in these big things.”

He also emphasises the importance of communication – radio loops are a must on yachts of this size.

“In the big boat world communication is so important, and on this boat it is twice as important. I have a speed loop and a manoeuvre loop that I switch between and so the speed guys are always talking to themselves and I’m 99% there, but on any manoeuvre I switch over with the bow team and mast team. I tell them what I’m doing so they know what’s coming next,” he explains.

But the beauty of superyacht racing is, as any bystander can see, the impressive scale, polish and elegance of so many of these yachts. The J Class are perhaps the epitome, turning heads wherever they go.

“There’s the racing, and then there’s the nostalgia,” says Holmberg.

“Today’s world is moving too fast. So every chance I have to sail and do something that has true sailing skills, and the history of our sport, it’s incredible.

“Interestingly,” he adds, “all my mates…. You know all these high performance boats we race? This is still our top boat. It’s the joy of racing this beautiful machine of the past and doing it right.