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Letter from Switzerland: Training in the South of France

November 5, 2001
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Since I wrote in May, we have moved our campaign from Switzerland to the south of France–Sete, on the Mediterranean–where there’s sun and wind almost every day. We can hoist the boat into the water and practically sail right from the dock for miles and miles. It’s a fantastic set-up. We live in condo apartments, a short bike ride from the compound, so we’re as dialed in as anyone could be in the south of France for the summer.

I’ve been sailing our America’s Cup boat for three weeks now. It’s an amazing machine. So we can all be on the same page, I’ll review a few important points: 1) We measure loads on the boat in TONS, so you can imagine the noises on the boat. Loud screeching whenever you load up or ease a sheet. I still haven’t gotten used to the noises. 2) These boats truck. We can actually go faster then the wind when beating in under 10 knots. This means we could keep pace with a 29er in the light stuff. Not bad for a 75-foot yacht. 3) You can’t make mistakes. You have to be totally focused at all times. Because if you ever make a mistake a) it cost major $$$ in repairs or b) you could easily be hurt. Remember, I’ve only been sailing them three weeks, so every time out my heart is beating fast pretty anyway.

On my first couple of sails I was introduced to the pedals. The pedals are what we grind the winches with. I am a grinder. So I’m learning that cardio is important, and not needing oxygen is also useful.

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Let me try to explain what grinding is like. First, we grind the mainsail up the mast. That takes about 40 seconds of full pressure on the pedals to get the main up. This is considered the warm-up. Yes, I am tired after our so -called warm-up. Then we put the jib up and start sailing. In a tack, two, three, or four people grind in the jib sheet. The sail starts to go across the center line of the boat and you pedal as fast as you can (think of fast pedaling and speed it up some). Then when your pedals load up you switch into the next gear, and once that is loaded up you fine tune with another gear. Then you wait for the trimmer to call for final trim.

Now grinding for the jibe is like a tack multiplied by three. You start grinding the “A Sail” (asymmetric spinnaker) across and don’t stop for what seems like ever. Once that’s done and you’re gasping for air, you shift your pedals to the pole and start grinding that back. Once that’s done you switch back to the sheet and grind all the rest of that line or until the next jibe.

Remember the weight-loss issue I discussed in the spring? Well, it’s back. I now weigh about 117 kg. (257 lbs.); I started this adventure at 127 kg. (280 lbs.) So, if any of you want an easy weight loss program, I GOT ONE. I still can’t stretch inside out, and I’m not getting anywhere close yet. But after playing sports my whole life, I can truly say I’m getting in the best shape I’ve ever been in. Walter Gregory, I am ready for your Laser 28. I’m also starting to look like my skinny brother, Tyler Bjorn. Yes Tyler I am getting abs. OK, maybe not abs, but something is starting to form in the mid-stomach region.

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Our boat captain “Chico,” who ran Prada’s boat last Cup, told me that this is America’s Cup University. He’s exactly right. We sail the boat, and we’re also the shore support team, meaning that once sailing is done we fix and service our boat. So Dad, you’ll have to let me back on the Performance Sailcraft assembly floor when I return. By then I’ll have an advanced degree in boat maintenance.

I thought I’d start telling you about some of the other sailors on our team in these letters. In this one, I’ll introduce you to Curtis Blewett, a fellow Canadian on the Swiss Team. Or as we are better know “seal bashers”. I know this is a bad name for Canadians, but it is still better then the references to the other nations.

Curtis is 28 years old, 5’10″ and weighs 187 pounds. He’s the bowman for our boat, and has an impressive sailing resume: 1st ’in the ’97 Whitbread on EF Language, 2nd in the Louis Vuitton Cup sailing on America One, 1st in the ’98 Sydney to Hobart, 1st in the Maxi Worlds. Curtis has been a professional sailor since 1995, and started sailing in Kelowna, British Columbia with his family in 25- to 30-foot keelboats. From there he found his way into sailing sleds in California and broke into the pro ranks with the EF Language campaign.

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For those of you that don’t know what a bow man does, he runs the front of the boat. He also climbs the mast, climbs the spinnaker poles, packs sails, and changes sails. Basically he’s the acrobat on the yacht’s bow and exhibits a very high caliber of athleticism.

Recently I asked Curtis to name his most memorable moment sailing: He said it was surfing in 35 to 40 knots in the Southern Ocean during the Whitbread. Picture sailing hundreds of miles out to sea for a month at a time with a great group of buddies. Not bad. The second moment was the series against Prada at the last Cup. America One was 0 for 3 in the opening races and then brought the series back to 3-all with before losing the final race to get into the Cup match.

I also asked him about the toughest race he’d sailed. He told me it was the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race (the one that brought 75 knots of breeze and six sailors died). He said that this race has always had high winds, but when the wind climbed to 65 knots they knew it was going to be an incredibly difficult adventure. Waves the size of apartment buildings and carnage everywhere. If you’ve seen the movie, The Perfect Storm, picture that and imagine being able to walk on land after to tell the tale.

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When I asked him what was his scariest moment, Curtis said it was in the big waves and wind in the Southern Ocean. He was up the mast on EF Language when the boat broached. The spinnaker had the boat pinned on it’s side, and in a mad rush by the crew to cut the spinnaker away to right the boat, they cut the halyard Curtis was on. So there he was up the rig with no ropes attached to him in the middle of the ocean. This would have been the last time up the mast for me, but all Curtis said was, “Hey, we’re out to sea and in a radical situation; the boys are cold and the wind was fresh. Stuff happens.” By the way, I ground Curtis up the mast twice today.

As you might have guessed, Curtis loves extreme sports. He’s an out-of-bounds skier, a mountain-bike freak, and a mountain climber. I think he’s found the right employment on a Cup boat’s bow.

Good Winds

Kai Bjorn

Grinder

Swiss Challenge 2003

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