Yachting: A day when Rae nearly said one final Sayonara

By Paul Lewis

Larry Ellison's book The Billionaire And The Mechanic opens with a powerful chapter about Ellison, his yacht Sayonara, and the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race when six sailors died and 55 were rescued by helicopter.

Emirates Team New Zealand's Tony Rae remembers it well. He was there. Rae, now 52 and the veteran of seven previous America's Cup campaigns with Team NZ (since 1987; he's won two of them, in 1995 and 2000), is also an accomplished round the world sailor.

But that day in December 1998, when the hurricane struck the Sydney-Hobart race and threatened the 82-foot, 25-ton maxi yacht Sayonara, was a fiercely bad day.

The thing is, Rae remembers events slightly differently from how they are portrayed in the book, written by San Francisco journalist Julian Guthrie.

The opening chapter starkly records 60 knot winds and walls of water so damaging that Sayonara's bows started to delaminate.

Kiwis on board included the then skipper, Chris Dickson, Rae (known to all as 'Trae'), Robbie Naismith, Joey Allen, Mark 'Tugboat' Turner and Brad Butterworth - a hardened and experienced ocean-going crew, most of whom, like Ellison, were vomiting up everything in the seething seas.

But the book also recounts how Ellison - undoubtedly a first-class sailor and a cool head - decided to shift the boat from starboard tack to port tack, taking it more bow on to the waves. The book rather makes it sound as though Ellison has directed this crew of battle-hardened professionals to do something they hadn't thought of.

Rae grins as he hears this. He hasn't read the book and modestly declines comment on what really happened. But it is clear that day was no picnic.

"He [Ellison] was just s******g himself," said Rae. "It felt like we were going to fall over [the boat was heeling over so much in the wind and sea]. They were horrible conditions to sail in. He was very crook, a lot of the boys were, and the book's right - the bows were delaminating.

"I remember him saying to me, 'Check the water in the bow,' because we were taking on water a bit. So I went up there and I was up to my knees. It was pretty bad. But I didn't want to upset him any more so I just told him it was okay."

Rae was one of those who took the wheel for a time while Ellison tried to rest (unsuccessfully) in the 36-hour ordeal. He says Ellison played his part in getting them safely to shore but says no more than that. Also out in that dangerous race were two other key figures in this America's Cup - regatta director Iain Murray, whose yacht suffered gear failure and sat out the worst of the mighty storm; and an 18-year-old Jimmy Spithill, Oracle's skipper, even then heading a crew.

"It was pretty marginal, all right," says the phlegmatic Rae of the day and of Ellison. "I know he'll never forget it."

Rae won't forget this America's Cup either; it's so different from his first. Actually, it's so different from his previous yachting campaign - on board Team New Zealand's Camper which came second in the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race, that marathon upon marathons. It was his fourth round-the-world race, 25 years after his first.

"To go from the Volvo to these AC72s and the whole foiling programme is so different but it's been so interesting to be a part of it; particularly in the design and technology side, working with the SL33s [the small catamarans which helped Team NZ develop their foiling skills] and transferring all that knowledge to the AC72s.

"It's worked really well for the team - the amount of feedback the design team have had from the sailing team has been really useful. It's the only decent feedback the designers can get and I think the two teams have worked in really well together. It's been a big feature."

Rae, with his seven campaigns, can't help but contrast the flying AC72s with the old America's Cup workhorses, the 12-metre boats and the Version 5s sailed in Valencia in 2007.

"The version 5s were quite basic and we thought that was a lot of work. These things are a hundred times more work. They are like an F1 racing car - every little thing has to be thought of and looked after. There are so many bits and pieces but when they all come together, they make the thing really move."

Rae has not sailed in a race in this regatta but is officially one of the back-up grinders, the men who power the winch-like devices which power the hydraulics and other systems on the 72-foot catamaran.

His value, however, is in his experience, his America's Cup knowledge, his renowned work ethic (like team boss and grinder Grant Dalton, he is dedicated to fitness and training) and the sense of permanence and solidity he brings to the team.

He's taken over from those being rested in training or practice matches and says he can't remember a Cup campaign that has gone so well.

"Where we are at feels really, really good to me," he says. "I think we have done a really good job of preparation and going through all the steps we can. We have ticked off all the things we wanted to achieve by this stage.

"It feels right."

- Herald on Sunday

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