Loïck Peyron is sitting on the windward hull, tiller in one hand, a cigarette of undetermined brand in the other. Though I can’t see what he’s looking at through his dark and closely raked sunglasses, it’s obvious he’s studying something very closely. That smoking hand though—it hangs casually, looking more like it belongs to a man at a sidewalk café in a small village on the Cote D’Azur than a man pointing his 45-foot carbon-fiber catamaran at the mercurial America’s Cup spectator fleet.
Heading back toward the starting line, there is some conversation between Peyron and the crew. Lines are adjusted, the wing rotates inboard, and Team Energy groans and spurts forward. The right hull lifts a bit, and I feel the aft beam pinch my leg slightly against the sparse netting of the catamaran’s aft trampoline. I expected these boats to be absolutely rigid, yet there’s a surprising amount of flex.
Winning the match race is Peyron’s job. The crew’s duties include everything from counting down the time to the start to handling the sails and working the boat’s two daggerboards. My job is to hunker down on the three-foot-deep spectator “seat” behind the aft beam, hold on to a modest quarter-inch red line and do my best to not fall off the boat or otherwise distract the crew.
Sailing past Fort Adams we lift a hull and I hear the spectator crowd roar its approval. Shoreline spectators are an integral part of the new America’s Cup, and our skipper is putting on quite a show. I’m astonished at how fast we accelerate away from shore, and yet how smoothly our port hull rises up into the air, settling in at what feels like a heel angle of 30 degrees. The roll induced by the tight wind angle coupled with a slight downward pitch of the leeward hull is akin to an aircraft pulling 0 Gs. We are, for a moment, both on the water and airborne.
I look over at Peyron, who circumnavigated in a record 45 days this past winter aboard the maxi tri Banque Populaire V, and realize he’s looking at me, so I break the contract and ask my single unsolicited question of the day. “So, this is how you got around the world so fast?”
“No, No,” he responds. “My other boat was much faster than this one. Much.”
A few minutes later we are up against Artemis in the prestart and passing the committee boat’s transom at 15 knots. A few hundredths of a second later the view opens up beyond our bows and I see we are on a collision course with the competition. Peyron has made a gutsy play for starting line dominance, but all is not right—two guys on Artemis’s crew have raised their arms and are shouting. A third joins in. It’s a protest, and we sag off, outmaneuvered and penalized. I breathe a sigh of relief that at least the foul is not on me.
The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. As we chase Artemis around the marks, I am so caught up in the moment, trying to savor every last second, that it’s impossible to concentrate on things like strategy. This is sailing on a scale so large, so fast and so loaded with talent that it’s about more than the race. It’s simply about being here and noting the details.
At the first mark, the genny unfurls and just when I think the boat can’t possibly go any faster, it surfs forward. Ludicrous! It’s at this point I hear a humming sound building to a shriek, a kind of cross between nails on a chalkboard and wind screaming through the rigging on a windy day. It’s as if the rudders are rusty scalpels cutting through thick seawater. It’s a noise I’ll never forget.
All too soon, the race is over: remember the feeling you had as a kid when the power was cut to the amusement park ride and it began to decelerate? Going slower and slower, I savor the remaining time. The crew is silent as they quietly drain their water bottles and then offload them onto the support boat. After that it’s my turn as another guest racer comes aboard to take my place.
As the RIB slowly pulls away, it occurs to me that in a perfect world I would have had a video camera with me to capture the event. But then I pause, realizing that the experience had been perfect as it was—30 minutes of pure existence with the luxury to sit, observe and try to figure everything out like a 4-year-old on his first trip to the beach. That 30 minutes was not meant to be captured any more than a rattlesnake on a West Texas ranch.
“Merci,” I say to Peyron as the RIB pulls away. “Et bon chance!”
Photo courtesy of Gilles Martin-Raget/AC34