Racing the AC45 Catamaran

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By Kevin Hall

This is excerpted from the America’s Cup website, americascup.com:

Artemis Racing has just finished being a part of a watershed two weeks in the history of sailboat racing, at the first America’s Cup World Series event in Cascais. I was once-in-a-lifetime fortunate to have a front-row seat at the event, racing on the AC45 in the Camber position.

The AC45 feels onboard like the last two minutes of a basketball game that has had no subs, with the court bucking under your feet, everyone on the other team taller than you, and sometimes even the fans themselves between you and the hoop. There’s grease on the ball, the backboard is changing from spongy to hard and back again, and don’t forget the noise of three helicopters making the oxygen-starved space between your ears feel like the director’s cut of “Apocalypse Now.”

I imagine the guys on the basketball court develop amazing peripheral vision for each other and their opposition, and even a loose form of telepathy whereby they know where that other guy is running to and can can throw the ball there with high confidence that it will get to him. We’ll be working on similar skills for the bottom mark approach and gennaker drop, for two quick downspeed tacks, for a dial down in the prestart with the wind about to change dramatically for the first reach.

The reaching start has really grown on me, quickly. It’s fair to say I have remained open minded about all aspects of the race format as they have evolved, trusting that some really smart and experienced people are developing it. The reaching start looks pretty straightforward – get reaching and hit the line with speed – though it becomes apparent that there are some very subtle choices at play.

The slingshot is very powerful, but the margin for error at that approach speed, coming perpendicular to the line, is extremely small. If you plan to roll over the top of everyone from the windward end that’s great, as long as you are 100 percent sure you want to go straight out of the first mark. And even if you do roll over them but you get to the boundary before your plan yields significant gains, you won’t have much clear air after the gybe.

What about light air? It would appear that a few wings between you and the breeze form what can essentially feel like a wall. Maybe even a back eddy. Get too far away from the line and be at risk to be late or even very late, or get a little too close and be either poached and put head to wind or slungshot by the guys who held back a bit guessing there would be enough pressure, and pulled the trigger sooner than you.

Now add shifts, reading whether the wind showing on the water is helicopter or ambient, whether the helicopter will move before or after the gun, whether when it goes right you will want to deploy – oh, and the fact that you just finished a race 8 minutes ago and haven’t really caught your breath, and have gone straight into doing a jib change, hoisting the gennaker to unfurl and do an extra tight furl for the reach.

Try not to forget that the whole world is hearing pretty much every word you and your team are saying, too.

The question of whether pre-starts or match racing in winged cats are interesting never needs to come up again. There are unknowable unknowns between now and the first race of the America’s Cup in 2013. One thing is for sure though – racing an AC72 on San Francisco Bay will be like leaving the bunny slopes to go hors piste.

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