The noise is almost indescribable: a deep-throated ripping, tearing, groaning – like a giant tree being felled in the forest. It’s loud, very loud and I don’t just hear it, I feel it in every cell of my body as the boat settles onto its new tack and the crew squeezes every gram of power out of its rig.
It’s a gusty and grey late summer day during the Auckland edition of the Louis Vuitton Trophy (held in March this year) and I have been given the rare privilege of sailing as the crew's “18th man” during a race; I’m with the Franco-German team All4One, racing against the Swedish-flagged Artemis.
The boats being used in this match-racing series are an almost identical pair of 2007 America’s Cup yachts, on loan from Emirates Team New Zealand – the same yachts being used in Dubai for this coming fortnight’s regatta.
It’s no exaggeration to call them the Formula One vehicles of sailing – not for extreme G-Force of an accelerating F1 MacLaren or Renault, but for their sheer power (and their agility in extremely close-quarters racing – as I’m about to discover). The power is not something you can see as a spectator but for me, perched on the stern of the boat – it’s a physical sensation.
We had sped out from the docks to the race course on an official chase boat to await the end of the previous match, between Aleph of France and Synergy Russian Sailing Team. As soon as the shore crew has checked the race boat for handover, we swoop alongside. Our sails are heaved on board the race boat, Mascalzone's are heaved onto the chase boat; our crew leaps aboard; the Italians jump off. Thirty-four men in all, plus half a dozen huge sail bags, all swapping places in a matter
Standing in the scooped-out transom of the yacht, I’m separated from the water behind me by only a metal bar at mid-thigh height. I have been warned not to hold onto the most obvious means of support – the sheet [ropes] for the main boom, which is anchored to the hull right beside me. To do so risks having my fingers literally turned to mincemeat by the pulleys. So it’s a crash course in learning to balance while crouching – and my plans of taking in-amongst-it photos have been reduced to grabbing snapshots with my one-handed point-and-shoot.
One of the special things about being 18th man is to be among world-class sportsmen in the thick of competition (imagine, for instance standing on Wimbledon's Centre Court when Nadal or Federer is playing a match). From my perch I’m close enough to reach forward and touch the shoulder of helmsman, Sebastien Col – a former Match-Racing World Champion – and skipper, Jochen Schümann, a triple Olympic gold medalist and former crewman of two America’s Cup winners. Both are focused with laser-like intensity on the shape of the sails, the work of their crew, the constantly changing statistics being fed through their hand-held computer and displayed on half a dozen digital screens attached to the mast.
Ahead of them are the 15 other crew members: the grinders on the winches, the sail trimmers, the bowmen, each concentrating his own, highly precise job yet all acutely aware of each other, so that they can co-ordinate their actions to split-second accuracy. It’s like an intricate – albeit exceptionally muscular – ballet.
Curiously, there’s no shouting, no barking of orders; WiFi has taken care of that, networking all key crew members with earpieces and microphones – but, in fact, the crewmen know their jobs so well that they work almost by instinct.
Yachtsmen use the term “getting the boat quiet” to describe the perfectly balanced state when it is settled on a tack, while drawing maximum power from the sails. As we head upwind on starboard, all of us now crouched with our heads below the side rails to increase aerodynamic efficiency, hardly a word being spoken, I understand the term in a way that I never could have otherwise. There’s a strange stillness to it – almost like a lion stalking its prey.
Suddenly, there's a flurry of activity. Artemis, on port tack is bearing straight down on us, hoping to cross just in front of our bow, it seems. We have right of way but still they keep coming. With all 26
metres and 26 tons of their yacht now only a boat-length away, my adrenaline is rushing off the scale. We can almost see the whites of the bowman's eyes. Is this a bluff? Not exactly – there's too much at stake with these multi-million dollar boats for that, and huge penalties for putting anyone else in danger during racing – but it is white-knuckle competitiveness.
Now there’s shouting, yelling, waving of arms and, at what seems like the last nanosecond, Artemis bears away, turning with the apparent ease of a Laser dinghy. With all wind blocked from the water between the two boats, it goes eerily calm for a few seconds. That’s when I realise that I had forgotten to breathe.
And that’s when I know that I’m not just watching the race, I’m IN the race. Physically present and now, emotionally too – willing “my” team to win; praying that they can find the crucial split-second edge in reading the most subtle wind shifts, calling tactics and reacting to that call.
At the final mark Artemis sneaks past us and, despite All4One sailing an exemplary downwind leg, with 200m to go it’s clear that we can’t catch them. The crew’s body language says it all; having been so intimately involved in the race, I’m as disappointed as they are.