Brad Webb is one member of America’s Cup defending team BMW Oracle Racing (the Team) who would be thrilled if the AC 34 is sailed in his hometown, as it should be. Webb recently presented the Team’s dog and pony show to a packed audience at the San Francisco Yacht Club.
His perspective on the Team and in particular the most recent edition of the America’s Cup is unique in that he is one of the longest standing sailors on the Team having been on board since its inception. Plus he’s had the experience of being bowman on possibly the most incredible racing machine ever built, USA 17. I’ve seen the presentation several times and still thrill to see the footage shot during the team’s AC33 campaign of the monster trimaran. I could watch it for hours and I’m sure this is what the team had in mind as they pulled together their AC34 multi-hull strategy – make it exciting to watch both on and especially off the water and the people will come, right?
Webb, a Kiwi, is currently one of the few US-based sailing team members on the Team, and conveniently, lives in San Jose, California, just 45 minutes from San Francisco. He’s been married to Karen for about five years, whom he met through the Team - Karen works for Oracle. As one of the guys in the trenches, Webb, 36, says that AC33 was the longest and one of the hardest of the five Cup campaigns he’s been involved with over the past 15 years, partly due to legal wrangling that went on which made it hard to focus on a goal, he said. The other part of it was being involved with the development and construction of 17.
'The uncertainty, not knowing the date which was a moving target, or what we’d be sailing on, the tools we’d need, the work we’d be doing - it changed many times. That was the hardest thing. Then, of course, was the boat. It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever sailed on and ever wish to sail on again,' said Webb.
Webb brought home hard just how little time the Team had to learn their positions on 17. Everything up until the Team and the boat arrived in Valencia was about making the boat go fast. It wasn’t until Valencia did they focus on details like trying to figure out how they were going to go around corners. 'We just didn’t have time for it. Everything was about trying a new sail, trying a new figuration, testing this, testing that. We had tried to put a day aside in San Diego to go out and race but it never happened.
We’d only made the decision once we left San Diego that we were going to go with fully furling headsails. Up to that point, we’d had hanked jibs, and were trying to figure out how we’d go round the top mark, drop the hanked jib and hoist the code zero and get all this done with just 11 guys. We were learning how to sail and race the boat right up until the last minute. When we finally went racing, we simplified a lot of our gear, cut down on crew numbers because we really had to get the boat around the course as efficiently as possible. We just needed to be faster than Alinghi – and we were!'
Just getting around the boat was incredibly hard work, with its 90 by 115 platform and 220-foot wing with an 8-meter extension. Dealing with this not only on a daily basis but having to move around it and figure out how to sail with it was a monumental task, Webb recalled.
'Sailing upwind we’d all be on the weather hull so get to the main hull to do any manoeuver we needed to go back up along the beams which was always a hairy little catwalk at the speeds we were doing. The gear we were used to deal with were all relatively small snaps, lines, shackles but on 17 the gear was big – swivels the size of your head and strops that are built to take 100 tons. You had to wrestle and drag things, like taking the halyard forward to hook up the sail to hoist - you’re pulling a halyard forward that’s 220 feet in the air, the windage on that was just incredible.'
Initially Webb tried to keep the equation between sailing the version 5 and the monster cat as close as he could but in the end he found he had to throw out that strategy mainly because of how heavy everything was and how hard that made everything. But, it was worth the thrill. 'Sailing anywhere from 20-30 feet off the water is pretty exhilarating,' said Webb. 'Out on the clew of the gennaker, I’m about 20-25 feet away from the boat on a halyard. At this point if the sheet were to blow I could get quite badly hurt. I’m not attached to the boat in any other way so I’d be flying out in no-man’s land.'
While there was never one moment where Webb had a full 'freak-out', nonetheless he was on edge all the time. He said, 'As an analogy, I was watching a documentary the other night about men going to war, and while this is nowhere like that ballpark, it struck me that when they returned home, part of their post traumatic stress disorder was that they’d been on edge for so long. That’s what it was like on that boat, from the second you docked out you were on edge – everyday we were going out and trying something different. We never really broke a lot but had a couple of near misses that would have been bad. It was that constant being on edge with the boat that was exhausting, especially the last few months of last year.'
But, as Webb has since discovered, Alinghi was having the same problems (Murray Jones and Piet van Nieuwenhuysen are now with BMW Oracle). 'You look over the fence and think, oh, they look sorted but after the fact, now that we have some of their guys on our team we know that they were spinning their wheels at times too.'
Nonetheless, sailing by computer is a different way to win a race and Webb’s grateful that the AC 72 means back to manual power, recalling one day not too long before the 33rd Cup when then main computer flooded and was out for three days, meaning, no sailing for three days. The 72 has been described as Alinghi 5 with 17s wing, and as Webb concurs, the big deal will be the wing.
'We didn’t even get close to fully optimizing the wing – it went on 17 early November 2009, we sailed it for just two months leading up to the Cup so in the grand scheme of America’s Cup development, it hasn’t had the exposure you would normally see in an Cup cycle. It’s going to be huge, not only for us and sure, we’ve a little bit of a head start on our understanding of it but the scope of learning about wings and how they work on a 72 foot cat is exciting. I think once everyone gets into it – and the other teams will catch up to where we were - the wing is the biggest difference to where we are heading with the Cup - the wing era will be huge, even in the smallest of fleets we’ll see the trickle down effect.'
Next part: Webb looks forward to AC 34