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Big birds, clouds, records, sharks and fast boats from Noakes (Pt.I)

by John Curnow on 5 Dec 2013
Team Australia Andrea Francolini/AUDI
Sean Langman has been in the marine services game for 33 years now. His Noakes brand and facilities are almost as identifiable as he is. However, it is Sean’s personal craft that have ended up with very recognisable colloquial names, which could well be the most famous of the lot. The Skiff on Steroids still garners a mention every now and then, for instance. So having smashed the record earlier this year for the run between Sydney and Hobart and then Sydney to Auckland, in a boat known as Big Bird (Team Australia), it’s certainly is time to find out what’s on the go right now.


When asked of the run to Auckland to partake in the Coastal Classic, Sean said, 'Yes it was a good tour and it definitely all fell into place for us. We gave Clouds (Roger Badham) an impossible task, again. After setting the first record, he managed to find us a window that would get us there with a week to spare to set up for the Coastal Classic, which is really what we were aiming to do.'

Now as with all things nautical, it was not all plain sailing. 'We hit a couple of fish. I feel the first one we hit was probably a shark on our first night out. The different creatures have their own density and after collecting a few over the years you do get a unique kind of feel from the specific thuds. Anyway, we hit it with the leeward hull foil and it simply crushes the chock that holds it in place, which is virtually impossible to replace at sea doing 28 knots.'

'We were in the zone, at night and it was not bad weather, so we had let the dogs off the chain, if you will. The change to the angle of the attack of the foil does mean that it is really impossible to fly with the correct attitude. At 28 it was a challenge and at 38 knots later on in the crossing, we just ended up going down the mine.'


'We later gybed back on to the good side and so managed to achieve the 18.8 knot average for the trip. In all honesty, I reckon it is harder to sail quickly in Sydney Harbour, with all the boats and ferries, than it was to do that', explained Langman.

Now the second time, which was on New Zealand’s East Coast, may well have been a sunfish. 'We had seen one a bit earlier and this time around, the animal actually hit the main rudder, which has a fuse built into so it kicked up. However, it didn’t kick clear of the water and this in turn meant then that we had this trailing foil out the back, which then put the boat into an involuntary gybe. Now that was a bit of an exciting moment for the crew!!!'

Sean added, 'No. It wasn’t too pleasant, with the gennaker up, pinned on the wrong gybe and with the rig canted to leeward. All in all we really did have a few anxious moments and you don’t’ really train for that sort of eventuality.'


'I really don’t know how you work on this sort of thing. We had this problem with Xena (the Skiff on Steroids), constantly. The first time we sailed her to Hobart in 1999, we actually ripped one rudder off when we hit a shark. Sharks seem to be the thing, they cross your path and they are just not that quick. You hit a whale and you think it is just all over, but they tend to hear you coming a bit more. We hit quite a few things with Xena and I suppose you’re more likely to collect something with all those bits hanging down there', Langman said of boat’s designers having boats look like a Swiss army knife. 'It will probably get worse, too!'

So what of the race that they went to New Zealand to do and came home so quickly in? 'Yes. The plan was to win it. I think early on we outsmarted ourselves a little bit. Vodafone tend to sail up on the sail cross over chart – more out of range. They’re a ton heavier, with a lower centre of gravity, as well.'

When they came to Hamilton Island, we sort of stuck with them by doing the same thing, because we had literally had a bare wardrobe. Now that we have a whole new arsenal at our disposal, we pulled up the new Doyle Stratis Ice (ICE is Doyle’s unique Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene ‘cloth’), whereas Vodafone are using North Sails 3Di, and just went straight back to the numbers.'


What Sean is referring to, is that Vodafone were still on their Solent, which is on the for’ard furler and the equivalent of a Number One. Combined with their full main in the 17 to 20 knots of breeze that was around, it is up and over the specifications on the sail chart. Now at the same time, Big Bird had the Trinket, which is the equivalent of a Number Three heady out (like a staysail on the inner furler) and the first slab in.

'We were under cooked and Vodafone had a little bit of an upwind edge on us early on. We then decided we had best go to the Solent jib. Once we did that, we were sailing in the order of 10/12% quicker upwind than they were and we ended up alongside of them a third of the way through the race. That was pretty nice.'


'It was turning into a really good boat race and then the Dynex lashing on the top of the Solent actually gave way. The load had melted the cordage, so the Solent came crashing down to the deck and these sails don’t have halyards, they get lashed directly onto the furler. As a result, we had to redeploy the Trinket, which meant we had to sail off downwind to get that up and in the lock and by the time we had completed all that, Vodafone had about four miles on us, I suppose. We kept on working. No one was slashing their wrists', commented Langman.

'Clouds had said from the outset that we had to look to the left hand shift so we kept leveraging to the left of Vodafone, even though they were a fair way in front. Coming round a big headland, which is a bit like Seal Rocks, but twice as high, we sailed off to leeward a bit. I thought where Vodafone was going there would be a bit of a wind shadow and there was this little sniff of the West in the breeze. You could literally smell it, like we get here in Australia and I said to Mike, mate we have got nothing to lose. I think we have to climb this ladder and get in there and he said yes I am with you and we just went up the ladder and Vodafone fell off it and couldn’t get back in.'


'We drew level with them and then decided, because it was getting quite fresh now, that it was time to get the reef in. We had broken a couple of baton cars, which is not really a result of poor care, as our maintenance program is pretty in-depth, but some of the titanium parts are in need of revision. With the slab in and no drag from the Solent we were blisteringly fast, much more so than Vodafone at that point.'

Now what a seemingly fitting point in which to say farewell to Part One and look forward to Part Two. If in the meantime you want to see about Noakes marine services, you could always go blisteringly quickly yourself, via the Internet at www.noakes.net.au to see about a location and service near you.

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