ZB News Sport Director Matt Brown reports back from spending a day on board America's Cup challenger Defiant.
I admit to accepting an invitation to go out sailing on American Magic's AC 75 America's Cup boat Defiant with a degree of trepidation.
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I'm a landlubber and always seem to feel seasick when I go out on the water fishing. My sailing experience consists of renting a catamaran in Denerau in Fiji and having the hirer come out on a jet ski to show me how to turn around to get back to shore. So, the prospect of riding on a foiling monohull at 40-plus knots was a little daunting.
Originally scheduled to join with the American Magic crew the day Auckland went into level 3 lockdown, the trip was rescheduled for last Thursday. My anxiety increased earlier in the week on reading Defiant had capsized sailing in strong 20 plus knot winds last Sunday near Browns Island.
(The team played down the nature of the incident to me, saying they were upright again within seconds and able to continue sailing.)
But it served as a reminder just how cutting edge these boats are and when pushed to the limit the slightest miscalculation can result in disaster. The night before sailing, the team's media man, Will Ricketson, sent through the schedule and it was slightly unnerving reading the team's "diver" Kobi Graham would run the safety briefing.
I arrived at American Magic's rapidly growing headquarters near Auckland's North Wharf precinct at 9 o'clock and was welcomed on to the base. I was introduced to Graham, an affable Aussie who spent 12 years as a lifeguard at Bondi Beach.
He went through the safety procedures explaining the knife attached to the lifejacket was to be used for cutting myself loose if trapped underwater, which made me a bit uneasy.
But the lifejacket also contained an oxygen supply, about 2-5 minutes worth depending on the state of panic you are in!
That was kind of reassuring although horrible thoughts did cross my mind. The team has two divers who go out on the chase boats every time Defiant sails. Graham says he has had to jump in the water only twice. After signing a waiver and getting into a dry suit it was time to head down to the dock, meet the crew and get on board the AC75.
The boat was towed out into the harbour and the crew spent nearly an hour getting it ready to sail.
There are 11 crew members consisting of eight grinders and the after guard. Skipper and CEO Terry Hutchinson is one of the grinders while Dean Barker is helmsman, steering the boat around the course. Paul Goodison is the mainsail trimmer and Andrew Campbell the flight controller.
I was positioned at the back of the boat beside Barker and spent the next few hours kneeling and grabbing hold of anything I could to maintain my balance. There was an adrenalin rush when we first took off. I was amazed how quickly the boat went from idling to foiling at more than 30 knots in no more than six or seven knots of breeze.
We were suddenly gliding across the water and it felt more like being on a fast train than on a boat. The wind buffeted my face and I wished I had worn sunglasses or goggles.
I quickly lost track of time as Barker and co put the boat through a series of manoeuvres and I marvelled at the ease they handed such a powerful machine.
The first gybe provided a wake-up call. The boat suddenly lurched right and I felt myself grabbing on to anything I could find to stop sliding. It's something I would get used to over the next few hours, gingerly moving from one side to the other after Barker switched sides, and determined to avoid the embarrassment of falling overboard.
I was fascinated to see Emirates Team New Zealand, INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa chase boats observing every move. I swear the Luna Rossa photographer was filming the entire session.
Barker explained there's an unwritten rule the other challengers don't come too close and to be fair they never got closer than 100 metres or so from Defiant, but they were an ever present. As the breeze started to fill in the crew made some adjustments to the sails, changing them six times while we were out there.
If the first part of the day had been relatively smooth sailing for me, the second part was anything but. Barker told me the team would be practising some pre start manoeuvres and then race two laps of the course.
The wind had picked up to around 14-15 knots. These boats aren't made for passengers and I confess by the end of the day felt like I had done a workout. Kneeling at the stern, gripping anything that would stop me sliding from side or side was a priority. There was a real intensity to the crew work and the smooth train ride became a bit rougher in race mode. Whereas earlier I had admired the views of Rangitoto, the downtown skyline and the Gulf, my focus switched to staying safe.
I managed a glimpse at the speedometer and saw 41 knots which is around 90 kilometres an hour on the road but it was a constant battle to hold on such was the speed we were going at.
A pause in proceedings allowed me to ask Barker if we were simulating a race. "No that's the pre-start," he replied with a chuckle.
The next 20 minutes were exhilarating. I couldn't tell you which way we were going or what mark we had rounded as I was focused on hanging on, but it was an adrenaline rush.
Sailing coach "James" came on board to chat to Barker a couple of times.
Afterwards, back on the dock, Hutchinson was proud to show me the stats, (some off record) suffice to say we went considerably faster than the 41 knots I had witnessed. I hopped off the boat around 2.30pm and watched from the chase boat as Defiant continued. Wow was I really on that boat? I got a different perspective again as it sped past Rangitoto.
I headed to shore, shattered, and that's just from hanging on. The crew kept sailing with a few reinforcements for the grinders for another couple of hours.
Suffice to say I have new appreciation for these America's Cup sailors, and the class of boat. It's clear the fastest boat will win the Auld Mug easily, and the challengers will know during the pre-Christmas regatta whether they are in with a chance.
I just hope there are enough similarities in performance with the second Cup AC75's to make it a contest.