As the sailing world waits for the first of the Class of 2013 to commission their AC45's, today was the turn for some media to step abroad and experience at first hand what wingsailed catamarans will be like in the America's Cup.
It's an understatement to say the AC45, the prototype for the wingsailed AC72, has become a familiar sight on Auckland's Waitemata harbour. Familiar or not, the AC72's little sister never fails to turn heads.
And with good reason. Any boat that sails at twice the wind speed or more definitely warrants a second look.
Last September when it was announced in Valencia that the 34th America's Cup would be sailed in multihulls, there was a a collective in-sucking of breath amongst the older members of the sailing fraternity.
Yes we were one of that group, hoping the a turbo-charged monohull to a box rule, would be selected. But we've covered that particular paradise lost in previous editions of this column.
Since then we have argued and debated the pros and cons of the multihull vs monohull And now our catharsis is almost complete.
Yes, Russell the multihulls - well the AC45/72 version of the genre - will be just fine for the next America's Cup.
The turning point came late in the day, when one of Sail NZ's former America's Cup Class monohulls, appeared taking another group of happy tourists out for a two hour spin.
Looking to leeward of the AC45, towards the former challenger, with her towering mast and massive spinnaker emblazoned in the Emirates Team New Zealand livery, it was time to make a choice as to where you would rather be.
There was no doubt that our heart was now with the dancing wingsailed catamaran type.
If there had been a choice of match races to see that day on the Waitemata. Two AC Version 5's jousting, or two AC45's flying - where would we rather be?
We'd take the 45's any day, now.
Toady, the winds were light, and the sunlight bright. Not the best to put the AC45 through her paces. A day better for fishing.
Aboard the AC45, the first impression is that you are sailing a not very big dinghy, or maybe a 30ft sports boat.
Everything seems very light and small. The big deck gear is noticeable by its absence.
There's no noise. None of the dull screaming of loaded sheets being eased that characterised the monohulls.
The wingsail is directly sheeted, 49er style, off its base out to a small winch on the windward hull alongside the helmsman.
There's a complex purchase system under the wingsail, which essentially ensures the sail is adjusted as automatically as possible.
A couple of headsails - one for windward the other for reaching are hanked or on the furler, plus a couple of running backstays, and that's it. All very simple, aside for the lifting and lowering mechanism for the dagger foils.
Winding her up on the almost non-existent wind is a struggle, with both hulls immersed she feels a little sticky aside from the fact that the speedo reads 7kts.
From what we can work out 12kts seems to be about the minimum liftoff speed, and after searching out a bit more pressure - all six knots of it - the windward hull is out and we're in business.
Once airborne, the AC45 feels like a low flying bird - again there is no noise, no load, no stress.
Erle Williams, onetime-bowman of KZ-7 in the 1987 Louis Vuitton Cup is out for the day - his first on the AC45 - and remarks how well the systems are set up. The former America's Cup sailor, Whitbread WTR watch captain and VOR 40kt club member doesn't seem to have too much trouble working out which string to pull, underlining the simplicity of the catamaran.
In previous trips afloat in the Oracle racing chaseboat we've seen crews scrambling a little on the trampoline and wonder what it is really like.
Not as difficult as it looks to be honest. There's no moon-walking. Yes the mesh does have some give - but is easy to get around and certainly easier to work on than a keelboat. There's a bit more distance to cover between tacks, but it is not hard, and as William noted after the sail - the AC45 is very similar to working on an 18ft skiff.
From the chaseboat we counted the seconds for a gybe - there were just six. The same or less than a monohull, and a lot less frenetic activity.
There's no boom doing a haymaker through the centre of the boat. The mainsheet equivalent is barely eased, and the wing just folds into the new tack. It a pleasant experience not to have to duck your head, or keep an eye out for the dark shadow of a mainboom on the move,
Upwind it is a similar story, we didn't really count the seconds for a tack but it is certainly no more than six, and probably less.
The only trick upwind is to manage the heel angle of the AC45 as the crew come off the rain in preparation for the tack. Yes, these boats are crew weight sensitive and as the crew unweight, the 'mainsheet' is eased a few centimetres to drop off some of the pressure and maintain heel angle.
Through the tack it is every man for himself. Most go over the top of the centre spine - but underneath is also possible and the centre load bearing member is not the obstruction it appears from off the boat.
In short the AC45 seems to be very well designed and engineered - and like all yachts of those characteristics seems to be easy to sail, and a pleasure to sail.
Can these boats be match raced? Sure they can - maybe a more balanced and rewarding form of sailing - with a more equal emphasis on being able to sail fast, sail hard, good tactics and good positioning on the course. Yes there will be much bigger gains and losses with this type of boat than the monohulls. But with this type of boat, capable of covering a lot of water very quickly the racing won't be over until the finish.
The opportunity for more pressure, and conversion of a knock downwind, will be enough to pull back a lot of time in short order.
On the water in the AC45, while she does feel a little like she is going around on rails, the racer in us doesn't take much to imagine another competitor on the other side of the course, who could easily be coming back on the other gybe with better pressure and angle plus 3-5kts more boatspeed and much better VMG, and a handy lead has just evaporated.
Another point of difference with the AC45 is the lack of instrumentation. Quite what will go on board, is another matter. And whether you have the time to look at it is another matter again. The prototype has just a simple speedo on the centrespine - showing just heading and boatspeed. No-one seems to look at it.
This is a boat for the seat of the pants sailor - and will reward those with that ability. Just like the 18ft skiffs.
Erle, and others of his ilk, will be in their element.
Both videos below shot from on-board the AC45 using small unstabilized cameras/iPhone4 - apologies for the quality.
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