How the Other Half Sails

As guest crewmember aboard the RC 44 Oracle Racing, I got a sneak peak at the upper echelon of sailing. (It looks a lot like the middle echelon.)

Sailing World
Coutts960
Russell Coutts: The man, the myth, the jokester.Michael Lovett

One of the perks of Key West Race Week is it affords everyday racers the opportunity to mingle with the best in the sport. Today, I got to rub shoulders with Russell Coutts, literally. I was the guest crewmember on the RC 44 Oracle Racing, and my spot at the back of the boat put me right next to Mr. Coutts. We shared the windward running backstay as a handhold—very romantic.

It was my first time aboard an RC 44, and my first time meeting Coutts and his Oracle team. I was expecting to get a glimpse of a brand of sailing wholly unfamiliar to me, to be dazzled by the secrets of the cutting edge. I saw some of that—the boat is a carbon-fiber machine, right down to the weed stick, and the crew performs complex boathandling maneuvers with a nonchalance that makes it look easy—but, for the most part, the racing I witnessed was surprisingly familiar. The conversation between Coutts and Chris Museler—the sometime SW contributor driving the boat this week—was no different than the exchanges any tactician has with their skipper: "Watch out for that weed patch." "Down a little; okay, slowly burn off some of that speed." "You're a little low coming out of the tacks."

I was expecting the tactical discussions to fly way over my head, the way calculus did in high school, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Oracle gang making their decisions the same way we make them in Tuesday-night J/22 racing: "Looks like there's a little more wind on the right. Let's go there." "There's favorable current on the left. Let's take advantage of that." "Man, we really shouldn't have tacked there. Now we'll just have to hang in here and eat it."

What the Oracle crew did that was truly amazing, however, was execute. There wasn't much talk about who was going to do what during the takedowns; the team simply dropped the kite and rounded the mark. When the luff of the mainsail began to bubble, nobody wondered what to adjust; the trimmer simply moved the jib lead back a few inches—problem solved.

In between races, the crew did that same thing every crew does— grab a sandwich, a bottle of water, and a candy bar, and own up to their screw-ups in the previous race. And after racing was over for the day, the crew did what most of us do—make plans for happy hour. One area in which professional sailors certainly trump the rest of us is the quality of the jokes they tell. Trimmer Colin Orsini told one about Monica Lewinsky's laundry skills, which reminded Coutts to tell the one about George W. Bush and the quiche. I never remember jokes, especially the good ones, but if there's one thing I hope to take away from my ride with Oracle Racing, it's those two punchlines.