Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: The fighter and the foil

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Emirates Team New Zealand's AC72 America's Cup catamaran.  Photo / Natalie Slade
Emirates Team New Zealand's AC72 America's Cup catamaran. Photo / Natalie Slade

Some time back, I flew off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in an F-14 Tomcat. One of the great days of my life.

As I scrambled about the netting of New Zealand Aotearoa, a guest on Emirates Team New Zealand's mighty AC72 America's Cup catamaran in the Hauraki Gulf this week, I was reminded of that day.

I should hasten to add I wasn't flying the F-14. Just as well. It'd now be a marine reserve complete with corals, moray eels and clown fish if I had been. But the carrier, the fighter and the AC72 all had it - an air of mastery, of professional competence; a humbling feeling that these astounding pieces of technology had been designed, built and operated by people so much cleverer than the rest of us.

Then there was the speed. You don't exactly pull Gs in the AC72. But it feels like you should. For the F-14, they fit you out in a G-suit and helmet. For the AC72, you get wet weather gear, a helmet and a little rescue kit, complete with two-minute air bottle should the yacht capsize and trap you under the netting. Skipper Dean Barker looks like one of the stormtroopers from the Star Wars movies.

On the USS Ranger, they fling you off the deck with a steam catapult. They tell you not to watch the catapult officer counting you down. If you do, the G-forces pin your head looking out the window; you cannot turn to the front. Physically impossible.

As you are shot off the deck, there is an inevitable drop - a heart-stopping, stomach-lurching feeling that you are going to flop in the water like your fat Aunty Gussie while 80,000 tons of aircraft carrier rolls over the top of you. It doesn't, of course; the F-14 engine cuts in, boosts you away from the water and and you are in the hands of the pilot.

He wants to show you the virtues of the Tomcat. Not the fastest fighter, maybe, but highly manoeuvrable and boasting an outstanding weapons system. Through the mike, the pilot directs me how to locate an object on screen, examine it and lock it. It is now ready for, uh, disassembly ... Only good luck or a malfunction or some hitherto unseen avoidance technology can save it from the F-14's missiles.

Then he shows off the F-14's dogfight capabilities. We do a number of rolls, dives, climbs and things I can't put a name to. He is trying to make me sick. If I am, I am buying the drinks in the mess that night. If I am about to blow the groceries, I have to take my mouthpiece off. The job of cleaning out vomit from it is not a popular task. I manage to last - thank God for good motion sickness genes.

That sensation of speed and bewildering acceleration comes back on the netting of the AC72. So does the feeling that I am in one of the expressions of mankind's ingenuity. This is yachting, yes, but it is also physics, engineering, research and design.

ETNZ tactician Ray Davies leans over the side, manouevring a small camera on a pole to record images of strings on the hull, there to record air movement. These pictures will be devoured later by shoreside boffins, seeking a way to make Aotearoa even faster. There are men with tablets, recording data to do with drag reduction, aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. Just as the USS Ranger in port has to be carefully guided by tugs, so the AC72 is painstakingly squired in and out of the Viaduct. To get out to the course, the chase boats tow it - but at about 20 knots, as this is such a beast of a boat that it is easier to handle at higher speeds. The rope on the back of the chase boat, as it is paid out, gets so hot that it boils the water poured on it to cool it.

On board the giant catamaran, the two main sensations are speed and sound. Sound? There isn't any. There's the odd groan as the carbon fibre protests at the loads being put on it; there's an occasional song from the rudder or the rigging as Aotearoa blasts up to full speed. But that's it.

When the boat is foiling - hulls clear of the water with all the resultant advantage of less friction and more speed - there is virtually no noise. It is surreal, almost ghostly. You look below the netting to see, yes, you're going fast. Very fast. And that is an awful lot of boat to lift out of the water and shift that quickly.

We are doing 31 knots in a 15-knot breeze. The chase boat, with its four 300-horsepower outboards, sometimes has to boot it noisily to keep up or to get ahead to monitor the yacht rounding the mark.

The crew remind me of the carrier as well. Everyone knows their job. They do it urgently, seriously, seeking a no-mistakes performance. They are pros working together at maximum speed for optimum performance and safety. They run from side to side during tacking and gybeing. They have to use an odd, high-stepping gait to run on the netting, especially when they are flying a hull and the angles are steep. They look like Star Wars crabs. I am pretty sure that if I ran down some of the steep inclines, I'd be unable to stop and would end up in the drink.

In an F-14, the carrier that looked like a floating city when you left it looks like a postage stamp when you return. It's a little like that with the AC72 when returning to base.

Barker shoots the catamaran back, doing 38 knots. North Head is gone in a flash; Fullers ferries are marine butterballs gone in a blur. A man fishing from a kayak is astonished to see so much boat blast past him with so little sign it was ever there.

By the Hilton Hotel, Barker does what a pilot would call a buzz-and-brake, turning a tight circle to nestle the 72-foot catamaran gently alongside the chase boat, so people and gear can be shifted on and off board and Aotearoa threaded through the eye of the Viaduct needle; not a whisker nor a lick of paint disturbed. Highly impressive stuff to end a highly impressive day.

Oh, and Team NZ took Luna Rossa on in a couple of practice pre-starts for the first time. Demonstrative victories followed. The boat seems to have it over the Italians, in spite of the design-sharing agreement. Not that anyone is saying so. This is the America's Cup. Swings and roundabouts apply. Things can break. There are no chickens here, especially counted.

But the New Zealand challenge seems in good shape.

- Herald on Sunday

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