Team VodafoneSailing will be on the startline for the 2011 Meridien Marinas Airlie Beach Race Week. Last weekend Airlie Beach local and current Round Australia solo race record holder Ian Thomson provide some inside knowledge on what its like for a monohull sailor to jump aboard this big trimaran.
'I'm a self confessed monohull sailor however when I got invited to go for a run on the ORMA 60 Tri TeamVodafoneSailing shadowing the fleet of the Brisbane to Keppel recently I knew it was an opportunity too good to miss. I knew it would be a massive learning curve for me even with my extensive sailing experience. What I got was much more than that.
Arriving at the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron on Friday morning, in the distance you could see the wing mast painted in dayglow orange, the traditional color of Vodafone around the world. I spent a bit of time talking to friends on the way to the boat and finally made my way down the dock where a few of the crew were slowly putting away stores. A lot of people say the boat is massive but on approach it seemed normal to me. I guess I am used to seeing Avatar in the Whitsundays which is slightly larger and having been on Brindabella it was another boat I guess.
Jumping aboard I quickly introduced myself and started looking over the boat. My first impression was that the pure number of lines was amazing. You have to remember this boat has not only a canting mast but it also pivots. It has lines to pull the two wing boards and the central dagger board up and down. It has the ability to launch 4 different furling headsails. Out on the end of the bowsprit is the Gennaker which is the spinnaker on this kind of boat. They are so fast they are never actually going downwind as the apparent winds always seem to come forward of the beam. Next in is the Solent followed by the Trinquot. Then they have another furler which is not set up full time, this is the staysail although they called is something else that I can’t recall right now. All of these sails have furling lines back to the cockpit, as well as sheets so plenty of lines even coming from the bow.
Next you have the main and with 3 reefs and the traveller running all the way around the back of the boat, the lines lead everywhere. The hydraulic system to tension the furlers and cant the mast is enormous. I guess it has to be with the size and loads this mast face. In the cockpit there are two pedestal grinders with what I call a magic box in the middle. It controls hydraulics and what the pedestals are actually doing. The pedestal system is a little complicated as they can drive so many different options and rather than buttons as on Brindabella, they are ropes with knots. They started to explain it through the trip but I still don’t get it. Each pedestal can literally control one of 5 winches or the hydraulics.
We store away all the food which has to go down in a particular order as the center hull has very little room. It consists of 2 bunks forward and 2 bunks aft. The beam of the hull is only enough to sleep two people wide. The galley is a stove top, the nav center is a seat stuck to the side of the hull barely wide enough to plunk your bum on and the computer is attached to the shelves vertically.
Getting out of the marina is a mission in itself as the beam is so huge. We had a tow boat help us and owner Simon Hull guided us out. As the one onboard with local knowledge of the race, I soon found myself with boat Manager Kevin Peet going over the course. Getting out of the bay was always the hardest part and once out it was going to be pretty smooth sailing. Our routing gave us a time just under 20 hours. This kind of blew me away but the day prior I had worked out what I thought and did book a flight for Saturday night, something I would never have done in the past on a race this long. It was a hope that we would get there and when the 20 hours came up, I was a little relieved.
Heading to the start and we put the massive square headed main up. 4 guys on the pumps and she glided up easily. The boats uses halyard locks. Under the loads, it is not practical to have halyards as they would continually snap so these simple locks take all the tension and then you use a cunningham to tension the luff. There is a lock at every reef. I had experience with this as Merit (Volvo 60) has them and I have been driving her in Sydney Harbour over summer on charters.
As we were not an official entrant in the race we sailed around well away from the start line. Wild Oats XI was our big challenge. The crew have been sailing around New Zealand and are just too fast for anything over there. So they decided to come and play in some races here in Australia and see if they can beat the fastest boats in Australia. Recently they raced the 1200nm Auckland to Fiji race and after a very slow start they found themselves over 150nm behind the new Volvo 70 Camper with only 30 hours of racing left. Once the winds became favorable they simply tracked it down and I didn’t think they had enough runway. They beat them overtaking them within the last 18 minutes of racing to claim a 2 minute victory. This information gave me the excitement that I was about to sail faster than ever before.
Oats and Lahana, along with the rest of the fleet took off at 12 noon. We waited approximately 5 minutes and then launched the Gennaker in what was about 10 knots from the South East. As we came onto course the boat just exploded and away we went. I was stunned. In 10 knots sitting at 120 degrees off the breeze we were on 17 knots. We flew through the fleet and within 30 minutes of the start we were alongside Oats. Out near Tangalooma the wind lightened and we had to square away and Oats caught up a little but as soon as it freshened we were off like a scalded cat. The run along Bribie Island and the true wind was at 70 degrees and the boat just came alive under solent and full main. The center hull was kissing the water as it threatened to launch out and really set us going.
In the early stages I’m just amazed. I’ve seen Wild Oats clear out on a fleet before many times. To do that to Wild Oats was amazing. We put 5 miles on them getting out of the bay. Once out of the bay we set a course of 10 degrees to get away from the land. Consistently we were doing 17-20 knots. The rate at which this boat accelerated was unbelievable. The most amazing thing was how easy it maintained the speed. 3pm out of the bay, just 3 hours. Unreal.
We settled in to course and as the wind picked up we threw in 2 reefs in just 16 knots of breeze. They just don’t need the sail area and you are a lot safer with the reefs in. With the wind at 70 degrees true it was fast however the reality of these machines started to come true. These are wet boats. At speed on that particular angle we were all in wet weather gear and getting drowned. Ollie was amusing. With ski goggles on he was just smiling and laughing. The rest of us were hiding behind the large rear wing frames when not doing anything. 9 pm and we passed Indian Head on Fraser. Could not believe it. Seriously, Indian Head by 9pm. In previous races I’ve passed this during daylight…..on day 2. We passed Breaksea Spit by midnight. We were on track to be in by 6am. However the wind had not stayed in the east north east like we expected. It had backed to the South East meaning the run across the paddock would be directly downwind. Not the optimum for this crazy machine as they like it beam on. To stay at pace you need to be running 120-130 degree true wind angles….strangely enough this brings the apparent wind to 50-60 degrees so you are still sailing upwind in effect.
The angle of the boom is a dead give away. It rarely is more than 10 degrees off centerline. The headsails are all sheeted tightly and you are screaming along. At least with the run off the breeze it was a bit drier on deck. Somehow Kevin and I ended up on the same shift so the two people who knew the course were down sleeping as we passed Breaksea. Not a problem on most boats as you can’t do too much damage in 3 hours but on one of these, well let’s say we over sailed the mark by 20nm. On arrival back on deck we gybed immediately although the loss wasn’t too major as we needed to gybe downwind anyway.
We also took out one of the reefs and went back from the Trinquot back to the solent. This put us back at 20-22 knots consistently in just 17 knots of wind. We were going to make big long gybes so we were heading at 220-240 degrees pretty much heading for the town of 1770. After our watch the others came back on deck and it was time to shake out the last reef. This is when our issues started. Unfortunately the plastic sleeve on the halyard lock to protect the track had disintegrated. I guess the 4000nm in the last month had started to bite back. Unfortunately the lock just wouldn’t do it’s job. With just a 6mm piece of dynemma as the halyard you can’t leave it on the halyard as it simply won’t hold. It’s job is to get it up and put it on the lock. You can’t load the sail unless it is on the lock. We tried for over an hour, up and down trying to get the lock to work. Ollie went up the rig and still it wouldn’t work, all the while we are sailing at 17 knots still under solent and heading to the beach. We even had a batten pop out so Ollie is fixing that whilst I am calling time till gybe……we were running out of water and needed to gybe. We had sailed so far into the beach we were down to the 10m contour.
Eventually a decision to leave the main on the halyard in first reef was made but not to load it too much. We would gybe and then wait till daylight to have another go at it. We knew all the time that Oats would be closing the gap but not much we could do. In the morning and we pulled the main down entirely to work on the head car locking system. That was when we found the issue. Not much we could do about it with no spares so we found out where Oats was and realised they were well in front. We also had a winch issue we needed to fix.
The decision….do we risk the halyard and chase Oats or limp home with our tail between our legs. In true Bledisloe Cup spirit the Kiwi’s decided to fight on and not let the Aussie’s crush them. We went to first reef and launched the Gennaker. Several gybes later and out of range of internet reception we had no idea where Oats was. We knew they were in the lead but by how much. Closing in on Cape Capricorn and reception finally. Oats was only 13 miles in front with about 80 miles to go. We were on 20-25 knots of speed so we knew they would be slower but were they lower. At Cape Capricorn we saw them for the first time. We had closed the gap to just 7 miles with 35 to go. It was a downwind gybing session which didn’t favor us as we prefer it beam on.
Running the hotter angles we knew we were faster over the ground but had to cover more miles. Gybe, gybe, gybe we went as we crossed behind Oats at ever decreasing distances. To me we had no hope, Oats was doing far too good a job in the light air and we were running out of runway. 12 to go and it was still 2 miles difference. However as the water flattened out and the wind lightened off, Simon kept the boat speed above 10 knots and we started to make an impression. Closing in on Keppel Island and we crossed behind them by 200mm. It was then that we knew we had control. With 3 miles to go we finally crossed in front of them and then drove it home to finish in front of them by 2-3 minutes. They set a new race record of 24 hours, 22 minutes. We had done it in about 7 minutes less including the later start. It was a real buzz to actually race Wild Oats, a better buzz to beat them. They have a full team of rock stars on the boat and without meaning to offend anyone, our crew was 6 great sailors + 2 ring ins.
At the dock and everyone wanted to see this monster of a boat and the locals came down asking a million questions. After a quick clean up it was off to have breakfast and then a final clean up. Unfortunately I had to leave the crew before the nights rugby test between Australia and NZ as I had a flight to catch. Getting to the airport, thank God I did leave them as we got smashed.
So all in all it was an amazing experience to have a run on one of these boats. The main thing that sticks in my mind is just how physical the boat is on you. At speeds like that sleeping is like trying to sleep in really bad turbulence on a plane as you get bucketed around. The nights grinding the sail up and down countless times trying to engage the halyard lock had taken it’s toll on the upper body but it had been worth it. These are amazing machines and to be able to experience one in full flight offshore is something I will never forget. Beating oats made it that much better.
For now the boys are heading to Airlie Beach and I look forward to catching up with them up there. Airlie Beach, you have an amazing vessel coming your way. Look out, the closing speeds are ludicrous.
I want to thank the team onboard for the race as they have taught me a great deal about sailing one of these amazing machines. Also a special thank you to owner Simon Hull for allowing me this opportunity. It is something I will never forget. I look forward to a few beers in the tent at Airlie with you all.