Gilles Martin-Raget /

On board with Team Korea

Our AC45 ride in Plymouth, plus Chris Draper's comments on sailing the AC45

Wednesday September 21st 2011, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom

Thankfully I wasn’t on board when Team Korea first lined up against Emirates Team New Zealand in the final of the America’s Cup World Series – Plymouth Match Racing. A phenomenal run of three back to back wins on Friday propelled them through to Saturday’s semi-finals against Artemis Racing, winner of Wednesday and Thursday’s fleet racing. Come Saturday, against expectations, Chris Draper and his team dispatched Terry Hutchinson’s elite crew of Cup veterans and their multiple Olympic Gold medallist comfortably and without incident, 2-0. Unfortunately the Korean team’s winning streak came to a grinding halt when they took on the mighty Kiwis in the finals, on a confused Plymouth Sound that was alternating lulls and powerful gusts, sun and overcast skies, with the occasional torrent of rain.

One race down to the Kiwis, I hoped that I might be the lucky talisman for Team Korea and her predominantly English crew of Chris Draper, Mark Bulkeley, Chris Brittle, Matt Cornwall and Troy Tindell. I clambered on board the White Tiger Racing Team’s AC45 having spent an hour on the team’s RIB chewing the cud with their AC72 designer Brett Bakewell-White, Team Principle Kim-Dong Young and Swedish match racing guru and former Victory Challenge skipper Magnus Holmberg, who has been coaching newbie match racer Draper since the AC World Series regatta in Cascais.

On the AC45, inevitably I found myself drawing comparisons with the Extreme 40. For the sailors one of the most noticeable differences in usability between the two boats is the AC45’s spine that runs fore and aft down the centre line of the boat, to handle the fore and aft rig loads. As a result of this the net is lower so that during tacks or gybes the crew can propel themselves beneath the articulating elements of the solid wing without clouting themselves (one reason why they all wear crash helmets). Because of this spine, and the bottom of the wing, which you don’t want to get caught on, plus all the additional lines the AC45 has, the sixth man perches on the tiny trampoline astern of the aft beam, as opposed to the guest position on the Extreme 40, on the main trampoline just aft and to weather of the mast.

The AC45 has a bundle of red cordage tied around the aft beam (this is possible since there is no mainsheet track running along the beam) and the sixth man holds on to this for dear life. The rule seems to be that you can clamber up to weather provided you can keep hold of this cordage, however this is a slight grey area – we’ve seen people crawl up to the weather hull, while a colleague who sailed on Emirates Team New Zealand was instructed to lie flat on the trampoline, and another simply plonked himself on the base of the black tower protruding from the aft beam (the mount for the rear camera, microphones and assorted antenna) and didn’t move between tacks.

I chose to climb over the base of the black tower whenever we tacked, all the time being sure to keep hold the red cord - for you do need to hang on. The width of the trampoline at the back is enough to comfortably fit one but not two buttocks, we discovered. And while we were prepared for the acceleration bearing away around the top mark, hanging on grimly to see if Team Korea would repeat her capsize from the first Sunday at this point on the race course, what we weren’t prepared for was the deceleration going through gybes, where, as you clamber across you have to hold yourself back as otherwise you are hurled forwards over the back beam (we only did this once...don’t think anyone noticed...)

What is most noticeable on the AC45s, compared to the Extreme 40s, or indeed any multihulls we’ve sailed round the cans, is the level of intensity with the crew work. Generally racing multihulls conceived in France attempt to make life as easy as possible for a shorthanded crew. The AC45s are the opposite – they are designed to be hard to sail, rewarding a high level of athleticism. Sailed by five crew, they are understaffed given the number of jobs that need to be done. They are also under winched, in particular lacking a pit winch.

Compared to the Extreme 40, the AC45s have asymmetric daggerboards, so these must be tacked, whereas the symmetric boards on Extreme 40s can be both left down. There is no self-tacking jib as the Extreme 40 has, so the jib must be manually sheeted and last but not least, the AC45 has runners, which the Extreme 40 does not. Ironically the wing, with its three control lines – sheet/traveller, camber and twist – while it may be less familiar is in fact easier to manage than a mainsail, particularly as the loads it transmits through its control lines are substantially smaller. And all of this is combined with short courses and course boundary lines that must not be crossed, so there is much more tacking and gybing than you would typically see in a multihull race.

Unfortunately our being on board didn’t turn around the Korean team’s fortunes in the deciding match of the final. In the pre-start there was some conventional ‘match racing’ – something of a rarity in the AC45s - as Dean Barker bore away towards our stern attempting to hook us, the red bow of the Kiwi cat ominously close at times. They were fastest out of the blocks and while we came close to catching them on one beat, that was as near as it came. However while Team Korea went down 0-2 to the Kiwis, it did leave them an unexpected second overall in the match racing – a fantastic result for this fledgling team.

As to the experience itself, the AC45 is a great bit of kit. With the wing we were expecting it to pitch more than it did and given that we were sailing in 20+ knots at times the wing is quiet compared to a conventional mainsail. We’ve sailed around the cans on faster boats, such as the ORMA 60s, and in terms of action on the race track, it is comparable to the Extreme 40s, but what is different is the intensity and frenetic pace of the crew work, the degree of team effort required to sail the AC45 as close to the max as five people are able. The AC45 is certainly an exhilarating ride in 20+ knots, but it is the stress on the crew as they put the catamaran around the race course that is something to behold and left us shaking for at least half an hour after the race had finished...

On board we were thoroughly impressed with skipper Chris Draper’s mastering of the powerful cat and this has no doubt come from the time he spent racing and particularly training with Oman Sail on their Extreme 40s and also to an extent from his immense 49er experience.

“It is exactly the same,” confirms Draper, “and it is full-on racing, about coping with it when you are doing it. I have certainly found in the past that the more relaxed I can stay in a race when it is getting full on...watching everyone, I think of all these people as totally unflusterable and then you see in some of the racing that’s not the case - you watch a video and it is like ‘Jesus they really loose it sometimes!’ So communication is a huge part of it and we need to improve that and we also need to improve our observation skills up the course and help on the strategy and tactics and things like that and distribute some roles some more, so we have tons to improve on.”

Draper says that despite their lack of time in the AC45 compared to the big teams, which were able to train in Auckland and/or San Francisco, he is impressed with his team’s boat handling. “What that means is that it gives me the opportunity to put the boat in the places I want to put it, but the only downside of that is that because I’ve got my head down helping out the lads, if there’s something we need to see up the course, then I sometimes miss it. That’s where we need to improve.”

Part of Team Korea’s success to date, we are certain, is that among their five crew they have two big lads in the form of ultra fit ex-Finn sailor, Chris Brittle, and Mark Bulkeley, the UK’s Tornado representative at the Beijing Olympics.

“We approached it in a certain way and knew there might be some weaknesses in some areas, but we thought it would be the best way to get up to speed as quickly as possible,” says Draper of his crew selection. “All the people that are on the boat are fantastic investments for the future. So whatever happens with the AC45, we are in great shape and we look forward to developing all our sailing as we go along.”

Draper agrees that the AC45 is harder to sail and requires more technique than the Extreme 40 and points in particular to the asymmetric daggerboards. “The amount of lift you get off the boards and getting the pace to get that lift off the board and reigning it in...

“Gybing with the genniker is hard, to get it snapped at the gybe - we are finding some new techniques for doing that. Tacking and gybing is much harder and the runners make life harder and there’s no self tacking jib and no pit winch. The Extreme 40 seems like quite an easy boat to sail in comparison!”

So what difference does the wing make to the performance? “The biggest difference is that it makes it very hard to go dead downwind. With the Extreme 40 if you were too low on a lay you could soak pretty well, but soaking with the wing is just a non-event, it stalls out so fast, you can’t get the wind to go around the front of it and suddenly it comes behind and you are just parked. That is one of the hard things with the wing.”

And in tacks or gybes? “It is fairly similar. If the traveller is too high when you come out of a tack it bites hard and it is hard to fall on to a new fast angle. It is a much more immediate power for the downwind, if you drop the camber in. It tends to be a lot more direct to depower and power up. There is no grey area - it is power on, power off.”

As with all the fast lightweight boats Draper has sailed, the bear away around the top mark is the toughest manoeuvre. As he explains: “The hard thing is that you have as much twist in as you can have and that is it – you can’t really get any more. So it is not like you can dump the mainsheet. All you have got is the wing sheet. The wing goes out a lot further, but effectively you are bearing away with the main sheet on the whole time. So that is definitely making it harder, but the lift off the board helps and I think that is an area we can learn a lot about. Like all the boats I have sailed in the past, bearing away at the top mark, if you get good at it, it is a huge asset.”

The fact that Draper has little match racing experience compared some of the America’s Cup and match racing legends he is up against, seems of little consequence. The match racing in the AC45s has been accurately compared to two boat fleet racing and Draper believes the skills he knows were more important in the breezy shifty conditions. “I think it was a lot more about knowing what shift you were on and staying in sequence with those you were in pretty good shape. The boats are blooming hard to sail which makes the match racing quite different. But that is what we always hoped would be the case - we are enjoying it.”


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