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From Mussanah, with a Lovetap

Max Bulger discovers that it’s not as easy as it looks to fend off a 40-foot cat during practice in Mussanah, Oman, with Team Oman Air.

February 22, 2012

My last dispatch from the airport was less than a week ago, but I feel like I’ve been in Oman for ages. Not in a bad way—the days are slipping by distressingly fast, actually— it’s just that Team Oman Air has become completely immersed in our little satellite world in the desert.

Headquarters for the last week have been in Mussanah, a rural area an hour’s drive outside of Muscat. We are staying in a facility built two years ago for the Pan-Asian Beach Games. It encompasses the Millenium Hotel, a restaurant, bar, and gym, some docks, and the classrooms and offices of Oman Sail. Out back, there is a massive expanse of sand that’s filled with our storage containers, a tent for boatwork, and plenty of camels, wild dogs and goats. I say “satellite world,” because we are isolated. A trip “off campus” to the grocery store requires 15 minutes in the car each way. With on-the-water training, gym sessions, boat work and team meetings, most days go by without venturing offsite. The centrality is convenient, but as our boat captain and teammate Will Howden says, there’s a bit of a “groundhog day” effect.

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Millenium Hotel, photo: Max Bulger_

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Our first days consisted roughly of an early gym session and morning boatwork while waiting for the breeze to fill. The afternoon sea breeze arrives around 12:30 at 10-15 knots and, combined with 80-degree weather, makes for glamor sailing. It doesn’t hurt to be sailing 40-foot catamarans that weren’t named “Extreme” by accident. Close-quarters boathandling with our competitors has made for exciting practices, and there are four other boats in the water here, so there’s always someone to play with.

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Team Oman Air on the dock, photo: Max Bulger_

Unfortunately, practice got a little too exciting for us on Sunday afternoon. While engaging in some match race maneuvers with Alinghi, they misjudged a bear-away and (accidently) used their starboard bow to punch a sizeable hole in the aft section of our port hull. My initial reaction was to dive headfirst across the trampoline and attempt, with all 132 pounds of my body, to push the oversized cat away by myself. Luckily for me, and my health insurance providers, our Omani bowman (and strongest crewmember) grabbed me by the shoulders and helped me (flung me by the shoulders) away from Alinghi’s bouncing pole and bows. Needless to say, that was an incredibly difficult and frustrating moment for Team Oman Air.

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Within minutes we were untangled, and heading for shore, our Swiss competitors graciously and apologetically accepting their mistake. We were crestfallen with the knowledge that repairs would sideline us for a few valuable days of training, but all understood these are the realities of sailboat racing. When you are sailing lightning-fast, powerful machines to the edge of their control on tiny, tight courses, accidents are inevitable.

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Team Oman Air boatbuilders hard at work, photo: Morgan Larson_

I couldn’t have asked for better teammates to share this experience with. Nasser is our bowman and local liaison, hailing from the city of Muscat. Entering his second season on the Extreme 40s, his significant strength is well applied to the front of the boat (and saving me a fractured skull, apparently). Will, our aforementioned boat captain and British Extreme 40 vet, has been simultaneously managing the equipment and teaching us Americans how to stumble around a giant catamaran (along with helping us trim the headsails and keeping us going fast). Some of us do have experience on giant cats—Charlie Ogletree trims the main and comes to Team Oman Air with a significant amount of AC45 experience. Plus, Charlie and Will go way back to when they competed on the Olympic circuit against each other in the Tornado. And holding the tiller, of course, is our fearless leader and skipper Morgan Larson. The winner of multiple grand prix keelboat world championships, a 49er Olympian, and a regular on the M32 and RC44 circuit, his name is written on the mast. I could fill a year’s worth of blogs with Morgan, Charlie, and Will’s achievements, but I’ve got to be in the gym early, so you should save me some time, and Google them instead. I challenge you to find an X40 crew getting along better or having more fun than Oman Air. When the press shows up on Friday (the Omani equivalent of Sunday, oddly enough), we’ll be the guys with the big smiles.

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It’d be a crime not to mention our boatbuilder, Jo Lees, and younger carbon guru Tim Knight. Jo stumbled off an overnight flight from England to discover a large hole in our transom, and with Tim’s help has been working from 6 AM to 3 AM for the last three days to get us back on the water. Amazingly enough, the boat will splash tomorrow morning. (That’s Wednesday; Oman is 9 hours ahead of the East Coast, 12 hours ahead of the West Coast.) Meanwhile, I have been lucky enough to be practicing on board The Wave, Muscat, with Leigh McMillan and crew (their fifth has not arrived yet), while the rest of Team Oman Air has been restlessly sidelined, measuring sails and making sure every inch of the boat is perfect for racing. We are all stoked (more like foaming at the mouth) to get back out on the water together.

With a long day in the books and another one scheduled tomorrow, I’m signing off. The countdown to Race 1 is ticking away, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. Between now and the first signal we have tons more training, media work, a transfer to Muscat, and equipment checks. Luckily, I couldn’t think of a more talented and fun group to do it with.

PS- If Charlie and Morgan’s wives are out there, they really did go through an ordeal to acquire those SIM cards. Please don’t be mad at them for too long, they sail slower when they’re grumpy.

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