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Hamilton Island Race Week: Flying at 33kts on a 70ft multihull

by Richard Gladwell 23 Aug 2019 08:24 PDT 24 August 2019
Beau Geste - MOD70 - Hamilton Island Race Week - Day 5, August 23, 2019 © Craig Greenhill / Saltwater Images

One of the features of Hamilton Island Race Week has been the MOD70 trimaran, Beau Geste - known in Europe as Phraedo3. The 70ft foil fitted multihull is a real head-turner, and a live bait for any media boat in the vicinity - if you can catch her.

All week, various media have been guests on board to get an opportunity to experience sailing one of these very special boats in a racing situation.

Many in the sailing media have been playing a game all week with weather forecasts - aiming to get aboard Beau Geste in a big breeze day and get the ride of their lives.

The Wednesday crew had the best of it - hitting over 35kts before the breeze softened. The sight of Beau Geste heading down that first leg in a 25kt breeze was unforgettable. One of those rare moments when you drop the camera and just admire the sheer sailing spectacle of a top race boat being sailed at her extreme limit.

Today's forecast was for a little less than Wednesday - a regulation 25kts. But unlike Wednesday the breeze didn't die, in fact, it freshened for the second of the two races.

Clearing the marina and nudging out into Dent Passage in a 20kt SE breeze which had been blowing most of the night can be a little unsettling if you are not used to large multihulls. It's a hard ride heading into the wind while sails are hoisted, with plenty of hard bangs, emanating from both the platform and halyards hitting the rig, sounding like thundercracks.

There's some debate about how many reefs should be put in - eventually, the conservative decision to carry two reefs is made, with headsail selection being used to fill the gap if the breeze eases.

Clear of the entrance to Dent Passage (which runs between Hamilton Island and Dent Island), the auxiliary is shut off, and it's helm up for a sleigh ride out to the race area on the eastern side of Hamilton Island.

The banging and crashing gives way to a sizzlingly fast ride at 20-25kts, not that we're pushing it - this is just cruise speed. Yes, it is a little wet, but it's just a matter of moving somewhere where the spray isn't.

The nacelle covering the main accessway below decks becomes a favorite haunt for the non-sailing crew. It is a bit like sitting in a bus-shelter that is being rain-lashed in a gale.

Except this one sounds worse than it sounds.

Outside the wind is not cold, the water is warm, and you don't mind the odd flick of spray in your face.

Skipper Gavin Brady, a veteran of Volvo Ocean Races and America's Cups sits high on the windward hull, steering with a tiller, in a custom-built seat about six metres clear of the water.

There's no spray in Bradysphere, the view is great. We hope he had spotted the whale to leeward - noticed after we had gone past by one of the cockpit crew.

That call is a sobering one. Things happen very quickly at this speed, and can easily go awry.

Safety before speed

On the dock after the racing Brady makes the point that they always err on the side of caution, noting that this multihull has never been upside down. That means you don't push to the boat beyond its limits. "You can push hard until the boat bites back you - which has happened to two or three teams. We're pretty cautious. More often than not, we get caught sailing underpowered. That's a little frustrating, but it's not as stressful as being caught the other way. Safety has been a big issue for us.

"It's like earning your stripes - we're on our third stripe now - having campaigned this boat for three years.

"We've sailed 52's and maxis for so long that we've seen the movie so many times that there is little that we haven't seen. This boat teaches you something new every day. "

Having reached the starting area, in the Pacific Ocean off Hamilton Island, with several high-rise 18floor hotels as a backdrop, the MOD70 prowls the starting area.

There's a constant conversation about the options, until Brady calls the class to order, and runs through what will happen and when. It's a different discussion from what you'd hear aboard a racing keelboat. The high-performance multihull is much more than headsail choice.

There's the foils in each ama, outrigger, or float. They have different heights and settings. There's the racked daggerboard in the main hull forward of the mast. That has a trim tab setting, like the 12Metre class. There's rig cant (usually canted to windward to generate more lift like a large kite. And then there's the vexed issue of the mainsail, reefed or full, and then what jib/reaching sail combinations are required.

Plus the choreography for all the combinations - what has to be done and when.

Although this is just their third regatta of the year, they are a seven-strong sailing crew committed to the Beau Geste team, and not one picked up on a regatta by regatta basis.

The upshot of Brady's analysis is the wind has softened, and they will run for the first race with full main, and the reefs get shaken out.

The start is fairly standard stuff for multihulls. Perhaps the only surprising aspect of the start, and as happens all day, very few craft are prepared to give the 55ft wide, 95ft tall multihull a wide berth. Instead, they push every metre before having to concede that Beau Geste is sailing indeed sailing higher, much faster and creating a massive, turbulent unseen air wake.

The first race around Pentecost Island and return - a 10-mile track - is a straight windward-leeward course.

Time to reef

Halfway up the first beat the breeze increases, and the decision is taken to reef the mainsail - a process which takes place sailing under the headsail alone and still Beau Geste clips along at 9kts, increasing to 14kts sailing at a lower angle, and then 19kts with the mainsail sorted.

All is going well until the interface between the navigation system and the tablet used for on deck navigation drops out as we are about to round the Pentecost.

Navigator Matt Humphries with five Volvo Ocean Races in his logbook has his work more than cut out having to switch back to standard on deck systems located in the front of the nacelle.

We're flying blind a little, ripping past Pentecost Island at over 27kts. Once we are in clear water, the tension drops a little, and it is a matter of working out lay lines and sailing angles to get to the finish.

The highpoint of the race is cracking the 30kts - topping out at 32.9kts on the return leg from Pentecost Island.

Beau Geste finishes eight minutes ahead of the next multihull, but the margin is not sufficient, and the MOD70 is placed 5th on corrected time.

"I thought we punched out to a nice lead," Brady said, looking back at the race. "We looked up the track, and the wind had increased to 23kts - and at some point, we had to bear away. That is the test of a crew's maturity and competitiveness. But we had to put the reef in, knowing that would cost us the race.

"Sometimes you have to make decisions which will get you back to the dock safely. It cost us 2-3 minutes. Nine times out of ten, we might have got away with doing that bear away under full main in those conditions. But one day you won't, and the boat will go upside down."

"In these boats, once you put the first reef in the safety factor goes up big time. The second reef doubles that safety factor again. Compared to a keelboat, putting that first reef into a MOD70 dumbs the boat down really quickly, with two reefs you can do what you want. With three reefs in you'd be happy in 40-50kts."

Brady and owner, Hong Kong businessman, Karl Kwok have done many campaigns in various events, classes and venues. Brady says that looking back over the tough situations over that period he believes that MOD70, sailed properly is the safest- as long as you can put the reefs in.

"We've won enough races over the years. We don't want to remembered as the guys who tipped over the MOD70!"

"Safety overrides everything."

Tablet has another hissy fit

Race 2 follows a similar pattern to the first.

This time the course is a 20miler around a laid mark to windward and then around Hamilton Island to finish off the yacht club.

The rebooted navigation tablet gives an encore failure performance, again at just the wrong time - making the point once again made that things can go very wrong, very quickly, at MOD70 speeds.

For the rest of the race, it is more of the same, sailing angle and navigation discussions, until we hit the rush hour traffic, as multiple cruising and racing divisions converge on the approaches to the finish line off Hamilton Island Yacht Club in Dent Passage.

Beau Geste always seems to be on port-tack, the windward boat, or one approaching from astern and is the give-way boat in almost every intersection situation.

You have to admire the death-wish attitude of the right of way boats, as they push their rights to the very limit. Maybe the post-race cocktails had already been poured and were not to be disturbed.

Also to be admired is Gavin Brady' s patience as he weaves Beau Geste through the traffic. No screaming, not even a muttered curse - that we heard.

After finishing the auxiliary motor is fired up as we comply with one of the "traditions" of Hamilton Island. Racing yachts are required to stay clear of the approach to the airport runway if there is an incoming aircraft. Non-discardable disqualification is the penalty for an infringement.

No delivery trips

After Hamilton Island, Beau Geste will wait for a favourable weather window before heading back on the 1800 trip to New Zealand, where she will compete in the Coastal Classic in late October, after getting some refit work done beforehand.

"We never use the word "delivery" trip any more", says Brady chatting on the marina after the race. "It doesn't mean that you are pushing as hard as you would when you are racing, but you have to have racing sailors on board the boat. You can 't go into delivery mode as you can on a 52fter or maxi."

"You just can't fall into the trap of not having enough experience onboard the boat."

With weather forecasting and routing, Brady doesn't have a lot of time for precise descriptions of what the breeze is going to do and when. "From my perspective as a racing sailor, I've never seen forecasts so wrong as they are now."

"We still look at them, but I look at the trend - is it up or down?"

"That's a big deal in the MOD70 because you are looking at sea state, the direction waves are going and the what-if scenario of say what happens if you get delayed by a day and a half?"

"You have to work off a very broad weather picture."

Rope over hydo

One of the features of the MOD70 is that there is a lot of rope on the boat and minimal hydraulics. The 70ft multihull is a long way away from recent America's Cup multihulls with heavy or total reliance on hydraulic systems. Emirates Team New Zealand's America's Cup winner didn't have any ropes/sheets aboard. Supermaxis sailing with a continually running engine to provide hydraulic pressure, are an accepted part of the sport.

"The boats are a one-design," explains Brady. "The MOD70 is the Farr40 of multihull sailing. They are a good reliable boat. It is hard to beat this boat for its speed versus reliability."

Carrying just seven sailing crew on the MOD70 might be a bit of a stretch - the 75ft America's Cup class will carry 11 crew. Responding to the question as to whether they are short-crewed, Brady says they have been pushing themselves this year to see if they can sail with fewer people without compromising safety.

"I think we are living this year on the lower end of the crew numbers, but I think we needed to do that to challenge ourselves. We did the Brisbane to Hamilton Island Race with just six crew. That was a small group. But it felt OK and was right on our limit, that's for sure.

"Sometimes, I step into the tactician role, which gives me a better overview of what is going on. While it works with me doing tactics and steering, it doesn't take too long before 99% of my concentration is on steering, and then we get caught out a little. That, in turn, puts a bit of pressure on Matt (Humphries) who is trying to navigate at high speed, as well as do tactics and current and assisting with grinding.

"One of our better setups is when Brian Thompson sails with us. He drives. I step into the tactician role, and Matt does the navigation. It's just a matter of finding those different combinations."

No large crew meetings

The small crew means there are not the meetings that occur with maxis. "With this boat, we have dinner together. It's nice being part of a small group that can just sit down and talk it through."

"We document everything. We do that every day we go sailing. We have a playbook which gets adjusted a little. When the guys sign up for the program, they are told that we need the commitment, outside of family emergencies and similar. It is hard to go and invest this much time learning to sail this boat, and being dynamic, and you can't just put another person into the team.

"Even if they are a multihull sailor, they have a different way. If we are not all on the same page, and one person makes a screwup in the tack - then we're going to be going backwards out of it."

"That's why we need the buy-in from the team."

"On a TP52 we could change maybe three or four people a regatta, and you wouldn't notice the performance drop. But this boat is a different animal."

"We're very fortunate that we have a team who enjoy sailing the boat and hanging out together."

Getting "muscle memory"

The black art of multihull sailing is being able to tack consistently well. In today's races, there were a couple of occasions when the boat hit an awkward sea slowing and stopping her during the tack. Sometimes it can be remedied with a lengthy backing of the jib, but Brady later makes the interesting observation that a sternboard (sailing backwards) is the quickest way to recover and turn the boat.

"Just like I had to learn to do sailing my Optimist", Brady quips.

On the MOD70 tacking is more fraught because of the numerous changes that have to be made.

"These boats are a real challenge to tack, and with waves are a nightmare."

"Sometimes, there is some luck involved. If you get a sniff of a header going into the tack, you look famous. A knock and you look like a novice!"

"Having consistency with the crew is vital to improve the percentage of clean tacks, as is being able to understand the reasons when we get it wrong."

"There's the whole dynamic of letting the mast go - depending on how much load is on the mast. Then it's a matter of how high the daggerboard is which determines when the boat will get head to wind. Trim tab - when does it come off. Take the tab off too early the boat will start skidding in the tack, which is really slow. But then we don't have enough people to be able to focus on that and not doing the other tasks around the boat."

From working with owner-drivers who are concerned about how well they are tacking a boat, Brady's advice is not to think too much about it.

"This boat really exposes you. You'll do ten tacks, and you'll be lucky if two of the ten are keepers."

"I'd say out of today we probably had two good tacks."

"That's not an acceptable ratio, and we need to get it higher, but we are still learning."

"If we too regimented in our tacking process, it is too difficult to understand. I think we have to be dynamic and to understand and get the muscle memory."

"When we are only sailing the boat three or four times a year, it is hard to hold your level - let alone get better. That's why we are here in Hamilton Island - to get back into that routine."

There are seven MOD70's around the world, but they have never raced against each other as a class.

"They are about the adventure as much as the racing," Brady explains. "You can experience sailing at 30kts all night down the Barrier Reef - as we did in the Brisbane to Hamilton Island Race - and completing the course in almost 26hours. That's the enjoyment you get sailing a MOD70."

"We've had a great time here on Hamilton Island. Pat [Kong] who has come in with Karl has had his wife and family sailing with him every day. It's a priceless opportunity. We've really opened the boat up to the media this week. Those are opportunities people normally don't get - and what a great place to do it.

"Blasting around Hamilton Island in a MOD70 is as good as it gets!" Brady exclaims.

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