Antigua retrospective

Andy Rice witnessed the maxi boat racing and some of the calamities that occurred during this year's Sailing Week

Sunday May 9th 2004, Author: Andy Rice, Location: Caribbean
When you’ve spent many years watching boats of different sizes moving through the water in a certain way, you get used to a certain pattern of speed and motion. There is a natural law which seems to govern all yachts and the way they move.

And then you see the maxZ86s, the twin sisterships Pyewacket and Morning Glory. To see them move through the water defies all belief. It’s as though someone has put life on fast forward. I had the privilege of watching them recently at Antigua Sailing Week, from a high-speed camera boat. Normally, we shoot the start and the first few minutes of the beat, then blast up to the windward mark to catch the action there, and then back down to the leeward mark.

With Mari Cha IV and the maxZ86s, this just wasn’t possible. Sure, with 250 horsepower in the twin outboards, we could keep up with them but at the speed we were doing the cameraman could barely stand up in the RIB, let alone get a steady shot. With these superyachts touching 15 or 16 knots upwind and reaching the mid-20s offwind, we soon realised that we’d just have to pick our mark and stay there. Chasing these yachts is out of the question.

How many times have you heard that cliché that ‘this yacht is just a big dinghy’? Most of the time the comparison just doesn’t wash. For their size, even the most advanced yachts just don’t live up to the cliché. But the maxZ86 is different, she really does bear comparison with a lightweight skiff, thanks to her uncompromising use of CBTF (canting ballast twin foil) technology. Roy Disney, owner of Pyewacket, likened swinging the lead bulb out to weather of the hull to producing the equivalent righting moment of 140 crew sitting on the weather rail. Except you don’t have to pay, feed and accommodate a lead bulb, of course.

The advantage of the twin, 3.8m rudders - one at the bow and the other at the stern - is two-fold. They can be made to turn in opposing directions for very efficient turning through tight manoeuvres. Or they can both be angled parallel to each other - say at 5 degrees to weather for efficient straightlining upwind. This latter mode the two maxZ86s used to devastating effect against the similarly-paced Mari Cha IV. Morning Glory’s skipper Dee Smith commented: “we were pointing the same as Mari Cha but going 10 degrees higher.”

And when the going got tough, the maxZ86s just kept on trucking. “The rougher it got, the faster we were relative to everything else,” said Smith after a big day out of Falmouth in 25 knots and 4 metre swells. While other boats pitched into the waves, the maxZ86 sailors reckoned that the bulb, swung so far out to windward that it occasionally broke the surface, was acting as a dampener to any pitching moment.

The motion of the boat is so different to anything these sailors have experienced that it takes some getting used to. At its widest point the maxZ86 is barely wider than 4 metres, and it becomes pencil thin towards the bow. Pyewacket’s bowman Rick Brent admitted it was pretty tough staying on the front, partly due to the speeds they were travelling but also because of the different motion of the hull through the water thanks to the CBTF arrangement.

Roy Disney’s Pyewacket only took one race - the last one - off Hasso Plattner’s Morning Glory, although the scoreline belies the closeness of the racing. Pyewacket would typically hold the upper hand off the start, largely down to Plattner’s own admission that he is a very conservative starter when at the helm of Morning Glory. But a series of errors throughout the week - whether missing out a mark or ripping gennakers (two on one day) - tended to hand Morning Glory the lead, which she would then hold to the finish.

“I’m hoping we’ve run out of ways to lose,” commented Brent towards the end of the week, his hand heavily bandaged and sewn back together with multiple stitches after a mishap during a manoeuvre. Brent’s wish came true, and the American boat won the last race in fine style. Less fortunate was that Pyewacket’s owner Roy Disney was not aboard to experience the win for himself. He was convalescing after a nasty incident during a gybe two days before. “The leeward runner, when it was loose, got caught around the lifeline gear,” explained Disney. “When the leeward runner started to be tensioned before the gybe, it drew the lifeline gear back like a bowstring, but no one noticed. Then when we gybed and I moved to my new position, the runner was tensioned some more and the gear twanged back and caught me in the side of my face. I was just lucky it missed my eye.”

Disney was sporting a large bandage on his left ear, which lost quite a bit of skin during the incident. He was yet to find out if a skin graft was required. Nasty though the incident was, he has lost none of his passion for these new wonderboats, and nor has he lost his sense of humour. “My wife tells me that if I got a bandage for the other ear I could take off and fly,” he smiles, alluding to one of the movies that has made his surname so famous.

Far from being put off by the dangers of such a demanding boat, Disney hopes that the demonstration of raw power by Pyewacket and Morning Glory will be sufficient to tempt others to join them. “With these boats we have got back to some proper boat-on-boat racing,” he says. “The trouble is most owners just want to keep outdoing each other by building boats that are bigger and faster, but what’s the point in that?” Instead, he would prefer to see the maxZ86 grow into a one-design class that produces tight fleet racing at ridiculously fast speeds. He has thrown down the gauntlet to other owners, but whether they share Plattner and Disney’s enthusiasm for no-excuses racing is yet to be seen.

While the maxZ86 match racing was a show in its own right, their close tussle with Mari Cha IV was also an incredible sight. Her 140ft, twin-masted bulk looked incongruous in the 212 boat fleet that attended Antigua Sailing Week, and yet the crew’s boathandling was impeccable. For helmsman Mike ‘Moose’ Sanderson, the task of managing a team of 30-plus on such a behemoth couldn’t offer a greater contrast with his next project, to compete singlehanded aboard the Open 60 Pindar Alphagrapics in the Transat in just a month from now. The 60 will seem small and lonely after Mari Cha. It might also seem less hectic. On many days, during the Olympic style courses, the crew had no sooner hoisted gennaker and staysail than they had to pull them down again for the leeward mark. So it was impressive that they managed to steal line honours from the more nimble maxZ86s on a couple of occasions.

It was also impressive just how unfazed Moose and his team were by their nasty startline collision with the Volvo 60 Venom. Approaching the windward end of the line (the pin end on this occasion) on a timed run, Mari Cha IV was wound up to full pace and had nowhere to go when Venom rounded up past the mark and on to the wind, directly in Mari Cha’s path. Moose said: “I had a number of very poor options at that point, and I chose the one that I thought would cause least damage and would be least likely to injure anyone.” The collision took a huge chunk out of Mari Cha’s bow and ripped the backstay off Venom’s transom, putting her out of action for the rest of the week. Mari Cha, on the other hand, completed that race with her bow flapping around in the waves, and the rest of the week with a neat temporary repair. Despite the point of impact dead on Venom’s transom, a subsequent protest found her to be at fault for coming into the line with no rights and leaving Mari Cha nowhere to go.

To see the amount of damage, however, both crews should be thankful that no one was seriously injured. One crew member of the 80 footer Opium was not so lucky. When a genoa turning block sheared off the deck it flew at high speed into the crewman’s leg, shattering it in three places and causing profuse bleeding. So serious was the situation, that his life was believed to be at serious risk, particularly when it transpired that the stricken German sailor was of a rare blood type. With insufficient stocks on Antigua, the race committee put out a call over VHF for other competitors of the correct blood type to come forward and donate to the sailor’s cause. To their credit, many competitors gave up a day’s racing to go to hospital and help the sailor out of mortal danger. He was subsequently ‘Medivac’ed to Germany for surgery on his leg, although it was still unclear as to whether surgery would be able to save it.

This was a sorry tale from what was otherwise an outstanding week’s racing. The wind blew strong and fair for all but one day, and the presence of such impressive beasts as Mari Cha IV and the maxZ86s was the icing on the cake.

More outstanding images by Thierry Martinez and Rick Tomlinson on the following pages...

Latest Comments

Add a comment - Members log in


Latest news!

Back to top
    Back to top