Sunday, 21 August 2011

America's Cup : Kevin Hall, Artemis Racing, on the AC45 in the ACWS at Cascais

Kevin Hall and Terry Hutchinson on the Artemis Racing AC45 in Cascais. Image copyright Sander van der Borch/Artemis Racing.

by Kevin Hall

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. Here are a few thoughts about what makes this different to everything we've ever done in our sport, and why I'm thrilled that this is the future of sailing.

I was terrible at ball sports as a kid. Pretty much the last one picked unless it was the County Science Fair team. So I never got to be a part of a basketball starting five. Which means I have less experience picking myself up after bouncing a bad pass or missing a catch in the endzone than most athletes. But picking yourself up off the tramp, or supporting a teammate who is running late to get over the spine and under the wing to the windward daggerboard is exactly what you better be able to do if you want to succeed in America's Cup World Series racing.

Artemis Racing at the America's Cup World Series in Cascais. Image copyright Sander van der Borch/Artemis Racing.

Sure, I've called too much time to kill in a semi-final in a Version 5 boat and gone on to sail a good race, and I've overstood a few laylines in the TP52, and sat myself down that night with my notes to figure out what I missed and how to increase my percentages next time. But none of that was meanwhile exerting at at 100% of max heart rate, with an average HR over 20 minutes of over 90% of max. And in those races, one little mistake - a half step shy of a perfect race - is about all you got if you wanted to win. There was plenty of time to plan ahead and not make them.

The AC45 feels onboard like the last 2 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.

You need to do your job. On our boat we call ourselves Monkey #1, 2, 3 and 4 from the bow back to remind ourselves that boathandling has to come first. On the Artemis Racing team website for the Cascais ACWS, my position was listed as "Camber". One little word which evokes the wing, but doesn't really mention the sub-roles as "Bowman Assist", "Trimmer Assist", "Runner if you get there first", and "Your call on this shift as long as you get it right…"

Time in the boat racing under pressure, as well as continued work on fitness, will make the boathandling more automatic and instinctual. But it won't change the fundamental newness of the AC45 class to all other sailing we've done : you can't do everything at the exact right time in any given maneuver with only 5 guys, so picking the right priority is a skill to be developed and honed. In the Olympic boards and dinghies they often sail at similar exertion levels, and for longer, but there tends to be a clear playbook for every maneuver, and not too many variations. There is lots of time between events to increase the base of repetitions of a maneuver, and a history in the class of what tends to work and what doesn't.

By contrast, we have a play right now called "freestyle", where because of a wave, or a late puff, or another boat, or a misstep, or a clearly unforced playbook error in loading a sheet or pre-setting the camber - partially, but not excusably, caused by being physically redline - or any number of other things, the normal sequence of events onboard just won't work.

Artemis Racing at the America's Cup World Series in Cascais. Image copyright Sander van der Borch/Artemis Racing.

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. As a forest the reaching start looks pretty straightforward - get reaching and hit the line with speed. When you get to the level of the trees though it becomes apparent that there are some very subtle choices at play. In a keelboat upwind start normally you have a good feel for how your setup is going to be with a minute to go, and it's all about execution.

In some of the windier starts we did some boats were still tacking away from the line at 40 seconds to find a new spot. Since 0-25 knots of boatspeed can take less than 10 seconds you can cover some distance! The slingshot is very powerful, but the margin for error at that approach speed, approaching 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% 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. Secure your mask before attending to those around you. Pretty different to luffing sails next to you but perpendicular to the zephyr direction - the wings are straight upwind of you! 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, drink some fluids. Try not to forget that the whole world is hearing pretty much every word you and your team are saying, while you're at all this through the ups and downs, too.

Artemis Racing at the America's Cup World Series in Cascais. Image copyright Sander van der Borch/Artemis Racing.

Boundaries - more tactical, as tactical but different, or simply an easy way for the leader to extend? Not sure yet. Might depend on the breeze and how one-sided the course is. Certainly if you lead around the favored gate and sail a high mode toward way more pressure and good current, it's going to be pretty hard on the guy behind to have the discipline to follow you. But the final beat of the Fleet Race Championship in Cascais, even with boundaries and usually more pressure top right, wasn't so straight forward that there weren't any passes. Time will tell, could be one of those big "it depends" questions which we love about our sport.

The question of whether pre-starts or match racing in winged cats are interesting never needs to come up again. Nobody misses jockey poles or the bulb either. Having to stay switched on between races to make sure you don't capsize is a new deal for many of us, as is the fact that you can't really entirely chill out after a race if you're coming out on the crane that day until the wing is in the shed.

The fleet lined up on the moorings along the shore in Cascais looked extremely cool. Bleeding edge comes to mind although I'm not sure those are the words the kids would use. What would be as obvious to them, sailor and skater alike, is the speed they must do when unleashed from the moorings : obvious just from the aesthetic. The onboard and helicopter footage of the racing provide a level of access to not just the fans but to the competitors which we have never had in the past but always wanted. How does ETNZ do their gennaker hoist? Just watch, from about 2 meters from where the halyard exits the wing. What do Jimmy and JK talk about in the middle of the run? Just listen, it's all there. Is there occasionally time for jokes onboard during a race? Most of the time we're too out of breath or brain power to even consider it. I did hear a replay in one race about getting a bag of chips which was good for a cautious laugh, but a very quiet one because I am quite sure there are at least 10 clips and soundbites that feature me as the class klutz or the village idiot : we're all pretty conscious of the glass houses we are operating in.

I am quite excited about having so much access to the inside of those houses on the other boats, not just vague memories of what went right or wrong on our own boat. The calibre of the racing in Cascais this week was already pretty good. Oracle Spithill and Emirates Team New Zealand showed solid preparation and a tiny bit more polish in the windier races than the rest of us to take first and second in the match race event. ETNZ slipped out in front in the winner take all fleet race. Thanks to a tremendous amount of work by the entire team, especially the shore team, wing and sail team, and coaching group, Artemis Racing was able to perform best when it counted most, and work through the fleet to finish just behind them in second.

The real winner in my mind was the event itself. There were clearly some doubts about what we might do and see in Cascais. Those can be put to bed, it was an excellent event on all fronts. Sure there are a few little niggles to iron out but considering the amount of innovation ACRM is taking on, they were minimal. Thank you to the hundreds of people who have toiled in the wee hours to bring the AC45 itself, and the racing we got to do, from vision to reality, and from something we read about a few days later to live in living rooms around the world.

Artemis Racing at the America's Cup World Series in Cascais. Image copyright Sander van der Borch/Artemis Racing.

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.

Artemis Racing
America's Cup