Ed Baird on the Fast Cats
By Kimball Livingston
I wasn't far along with my project of the day, querying America's Cup helmsman Ed Baird about sailing these real fast multihulls he's racing nowadays, when he interjected, "A lot of my friends have been asking the same questions you're asking, and yes it's different but it's not so different. I grew up racing Lasers and the like, and when boards came along they were fast and different, but I learned how to sail them too. Now it's cats and tris. Definitely it's fun to go this fast. The moment you leave the dock you're on edge. You have to be mentally on.
"Cats have their own behavior in terms of stability and acceleration," Baird said, "but if you think about it, design evolution in the monohull world is bringing us closer to this kind of sailing. We're on a learning curve, and I'm curious just how far up that curve we really are."
It has to feel different, doesn't it?
"The distances take some getting used to. When somebody on another boat does something right, you look at the distance they've gained on you and you think, man, we can never catch up to that! But you learn that you can get it back on one puff or a shift or even just a better tack. When we first started sailing the iShares 40-foot cats, we put two boats side by side, and it helped us climb the steepest part of the learning curve [in comparison to the intricate and laborious two-boat testing in AC class monos], but we're just now sorting out and starting to understand the subtleties of the boats in 18 knots versus 20, smooth water versus a chop."
Baird, we should remember, is speaking of a boat that is less than half the size of the monster that, in speculation, he may have to sail some day, in the next America's Cup match.
Let's cover some background: Florida native Ed Baird went from being a little kid in an Opti to a big kid in a Laser, then won world championships in the Laser, Soling, and J/24 before adding big boat/bluewater racing to his repertoire. His involvement with America's Cup competition began in 1995, the same year that he was voted U.S. Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. He was named ISAF world sailor of the year last year off his performance at the helm of Alinghi, where the defender's 5-2 series in the 32nd match for the America's Cup preserved the dominance of Switzerland's Socit Nautique de Genve.
Baird was passed over for national recognition in the U.S. and continues helming this or that craft named Alinghi. The Swiss defenders are preparing for a possible Deed of Gift match in giant multihulls against the team's archrival, BMW Oracle Racing, and meanwhile are contesting the process in court.
Last March Baird hit a low. In a team practice session with the volatile 60-foot trimaran Foncia . . .
The boat stuffed a wave while bearing off, buried two bows, and went over in a terrifying flip forward, with injuries to crew and a broken mast. The two crewmen airlifted from the scene were, fortunately, not seriously injured and were soon released from hospital. But the incident was an embarrassment all around, considering the team's high profile. The tow to the dock was pretty grim.
But you have to be willing to dare. The meek shall not inherit America's Cup.
More recently Baird hit a high, winning a windy and "pretty hairy" iShares Cup event sailed at Skandia Cowes Week in 40-foot cats. That's what prompted our conversation. Below we see Baird with multihull specialist Franck Proffitt.
Cowes Week was BMW Oracle's turn to pay dues. In the team's iShares debut, veteran multihull skipper and team newcomer Franck Cammas got crowded at a mark rounding and served up one of the more public spectacular capsizes of recent memory. BMW Oracle also fielded a second cat, driven by still-the-boy-wonder James Spithill from his post on the steep part of the catamaran learning curve. Cammas and Spithill are both new helmsmen to BMW Oracle, whose early promise in the 2007 challenger rounds at Valencia ended in a sudden, shocking meltdown.
With AC news now focused on court arguments and such arcane minutiae as the meaning of legal phrases ("having its annual regatta on the arm of the sea") and the correct authority by which to judge, and the tedium of waiting for rulings on same, it's nice to be reminded that there still is sailing involved. Alinghi won the latest courtroom round, and BMW Oracle has filed the latest appeal (or if you insist, its sponsoring club, Golden Gate YC, filed the appeal).
Should Alinghi win the next legal round, we can expect AC 33 to be sailed in monohulls, with a fleet sail-off but with many questions still festering, questions that inspired Larry Ellison's American team in the first place to enter the challenge that diverted the game to multihulls. Don't ask me about a timeline because I just don't know. Should BMW Oracle win in court, AC 33 looks to be a grudge match in giant multihulls, a showdown on Main Street with control of the future of sailboat racing in the balance. A big chunk of that future, anyway. And then we will look toward an AC 34 with a fleet sail-off in monohulls.
That is, unless another something happens sideways, to restart the legal process along different lines of argument, and I do hope I'm only hedging here and not predicting.
The America's Cup world is divided into two camps, neither of them happy campers.
With the Cup scene thus enshambled, only Alinghi and BMW Oracle are fully up and running as AC employers of professional sailors. Add Britain's TeamOrigin, to the lesser extent that they are also participating in the iShares circuit. The other AC camps are in sleep mode, their sailors and mechanics scattered to the TP52 fleet in the Med or wherever they can find some action. Baird, meanwhile, is living at home in St. Petersburg and "racking up a lot of air time" flying back and forth across the Atlantic. As we chatted over his mobile phone, he was driving through a rainstorm in North Carolina, en route to pick up two sons who had been away at camp. Not an America's Cup camp, than goodness.
Well, Ed had been away too.
Likely, they had plenty of tales to tell on the drive home.