AC45 Road Test

The joke was on me. I dosed myself with ibuprofen both the night before and the morning of, but my ride on AC45 #4 was the smoothest fast sail I have ever had. Upwind at 16 knots, downwind at 29—downwind meaning that we would arrive downwind of our starting point, but because the apparent wind was so far forward, I couldn’t exactly feel the breeze on the back of my neck

In anticipation of World Series competition for the America’s Cup advance fleet—45-foot one-design catamarans—Oracle Racing trooped its two boats through San Francisco Bay in late June because, hey, everybody has to be some place, and come 2013 everybody will have to be in this place. If practice at home is good, practice at home in the venue of the next America’s Cup is ideal. Meanwhile, a lucky few civilians got rides in that booming seabreeze that is reason number one for racing the 34th America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay. I was one of the lucky few.

So there I was, two light fingers on the hiking stick, driving upwind at 16 knots, with Jimmy—”everyone wears helmets for a reason”—Spithill next to me, just in case I needed rescuing, and it was feeling effortless until Murray Jones, trimming the wing, advised, oh so politely, “It’s good to keep it at 16.” Um, right, the speedo was reading 15. I nudged her down. Up came 17. Mr. Jones mentioned, very politely, “16 is good.” So I worked at it, and I could almost hold it, which says a lot about the boat and, perhaps, the support of five practiced pros. Oh, did I mention the shriek of the apparent wind somewhere in the 30s?

And then I discovered that Spithill expected me to tack the darned thing: “Don’t worry, mate, you’ll be fine.” After that, just shy of the Golden Gate Bridge, it was time to turn downwind. First, though, there was the matter of escaping the loop in the line that trapped my foot as I crossed the net and, oops, Spithill was telling me to “press it” down more. Up forward, more sailpower was about to be deployed, and this was less than 48 hours after Russell Coutts—Olympic gold medalist, CEO of Oracle Racing, winner of more AC races than anyone else, ever—had famously stuffed and flipped boat #5, and fallen off the net to become the first AC sailor to score a hole in one (wing), dropping right through it.

So let’s talk about the wings. They contain air. In the event of a capsize, they become an anti-turtle device. Structurally, the wing is a skeleton of featherlight Nomex-cored carbon, with parts easily swapped out overnight. In fact, #5 was back sailing the very next day. The fix involved gluing the parts together to dry overnight, then applying clear plastic wrapping over double-sided tape. The heat from an iron (your mother’s iron would do) was used to shrink-fit the plastic.

Underway, fore and aft wing elements are trimmed together for a slot effect, much like a jib-main combination. From top to bottom in the aft element, the range of twist in the set of three flaps runs from 0 degrees to 33 degrees. According to trimmer Dirk de Ridder, 0 degrees of twist works in very light air. And maximum twist? “On San Francisco Bay, all the time.”

Not that I was thinking in those terms as I “pressed” a bit more. I could feel the boat lighting up, eager to fly, and speaking of flying, the spray was flying and the water was really flying by the time Spithill finally announced, “Okay, I’ll take it from here.”

Whew. Port and starboard on the aft crossmember are two bright yellow straps—easy to find in a hurry—that are sometimes for the tactician, sometimes for a passenger, and with nothing but water behind me, I gripped on and looked at 20 knots, 22, 25, 28. When I saw 29 knots I was begging for 30, but no. The afternoon seabreeze was still building, and I had to leave the new SAIL magazine speed record pegged at a beatable 29. With just one more ride (pretty please) I bet we can bust that, even before the AC72s arrive.

The silly-grin has yet to fade.

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