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AC34: A Ride On Board

If being made to sign a waiver before you hop on board Team New Zealand’s second super-sleek AC72, Aotearoa, isn’t enough to make one nervous, being thrown a helmet and oxygen bottle as you leave the chase boat certainly is. But in this brave new world of extreme sailing, even we reporters need to adjust. So, as I gingerly climb aboard NZL05—the boat Emirates Team New Zealand hopes will win the America’s Cup—I steel myself with the knowledge that this will be a mere pleasure cruise around the Hauraki Gulf.

Moving around the boat takes some getting used to. As I stagger about on the netting like a new-born foal, clambering from one side to the other with each tack, the crew sprints past me, easily traversing the distance between the two hulls in a couple of bounds. While the sailors appear surefooted as they scurry around, grinder Chris McAsey later tells me he has nearly been “tipped off” the boat a couple of times after over-balancing; grinder Rob Waddell, too. The easy bit, he says, is getting across to the other side; the hard bit is slowing yourself down when you get there. McAsey says one slight bump and he could easily end up in the drink.

Fortunately, I never get close enough to the edge to get thrown in. Instead, I’m seated in the driest spot on the boat, right in the center, although that doesn’t save me from the odd dousing. Still, it’s the windward crew that are most in the firing line, with Richard Meacham, the team’s bowman, often hunkering down to avoid the massive shower of spray as the windward foil kisses the water. Today is considered a calm day, with a flat sea and moderate winds, but full wet-weather gear is a must.

Then the real ride begins as we head downwind.

As we round the top mark off Tiritiri Matangi Island, I steel myself for a sudden jolt as the boat takes off, but it never comes. Instead, it’s the silence that catches me off guard—all at once everything is incredibly peaceful. The crashing through the waves has stopped, and all you can hear is the wind whistling and the gentle creaking of the wing as the boat smoothly accelerates. Moments later, when Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton tells me to look down, I’m amazed to see both hulls are flying clear and the turquoise water of the Hauraki Gulf swishing 15 to 18 feet below.

Sitting so precariously above the water, the expectation is that when the boat loses its lift, it will violently crash back down into the waves below. But this also proves not to be the case, and instead, when we harden up again, NZL05 smoothly glides to the surface like a mythical sea creature.

According to the onboard data, we get up to around 38 knots at one stage during a run. But while it certainly feels like we’re going exceptionally fast, there is never the sense that the boat is on the verge of losing control. In fact, it doesn’t feel as though NZL05 is even close to being pressed.

Boat One reportedly reached speeds of 48 knots, and there is a strong belief there is plenty of untapped speed potential in the revised model. In other words, speeds of over 50 knots are very much within reach. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like aboard this boat as it duels with another super-sized racing machine in actual Cup competition in the tight confines of San Francisco Bay.

Dana Johannsen has been reporting on sailing for the New Zealand Herald since 2007 and in 2012 was named New Zealand Sports Journalist of the Year, based in part on her America’s Cup coverage

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