**Sidney Gavignet is no stranger to high-pressure yacht racing. **A veteran of four Volvo Ocean Races, the last with Puma Ocean Racing, and the skipper of the giant maxi trimaran Oman Air, you’d think that day racing small catamarans would be a walk in the park for one of the most experienced skippers in the Extreme Sailing Series.
Think again. As a rookie in the Extreme Sailing Series, the learning curve in the series’ one-design, 40-foot catamarans has been brutal. Extreme 40 sailing requires split second thinking, and a level of mental and physical endurance that is completely different than ocean racing. Miss a shift or band of wind here, and you’re done. A bad tack can cost you six places, and since you’re right in front of the spectators, everyone can see the action and second-guess you when it’s done. I was fortunate enough to be invited onboard Oman Air for a race, and it was an experience that will never be forgotten.
After being given the required lifejacket and crash helmet, I was shuttled out to the boat by RIB. Stepping aboard, I was greeted by Gavignet, trimmer David Carr, tactician Kinley Fowler, and Oman’s own Nasser Al Mashari on the bow. Nasser gave me a quick overview of the rules for being a fifth man: Don’t touch anything, no talking during the race to the crew, no hiking, and don’t fall off. Then we were off to get ready for the race.
[For more photos from the author, click here.]
We set up for the start near the pin end of the line with about a minute to go and a nice lane in which to accelerate. The start was quite like starting a dinghy, with Oman Air pulling the trigger with 10 seconds to the start and going from nothing to flying almost instantly. The plan was to sail to the left side of the course, where the band of wind appeared to be. Sailing the previous few days had been a massive game of snakes and ladders, and the breeze patches are really hard to see in a race that totals all of 9 minutes, so the pre-start strategy is much more critical here than in a conventional sailboat race. Our plan worked well, and within two minutes, we were on the port tack layline, looking to round the weather mark to starboard in 3rd place. Things were great, until Alinghi caught a puff and came storming in on starboard, flying a hull on a collision course with us.
As the give-way boat, Oman Air had to quickly luff to avoid Alinghi. Unlike a keelboat where you can carry momentum, the X40 simply stops when you go head to wind. With Nasser desperately trying to back the jib to get us going again, we were helpless as Alinghi sped by us, followed by Nice For You on the inside. On the other side, Luna Rossa got stuck on our hip trying to avoid us, and Red Bull came skidding into Luna Rossa with a dull thud. Artemis saw the mess unfolding and was able to speed around our pileup on the outside. Pindar wasn’t so lucky. Ian Williams misjudged his position and hit Red Bull, shearing off their rudder in the process.
With our third turned into a ninth in the span of 30 seconds, there was a lot of catch up to be done and not a lot of time. We were able to bear off and set the gennaker, and the battle to catch the fleet and keep Luna Rossa at bay was on. The run to the leeward mark took all of 2 minutes, as Oman Air flew a hull and tried to hold off Luna Rossa, who had taken up position inside us. We were going to be on the outside after the gybe and would need to regain our place on the next beat.
The short trip back upwind gave us few passing lanes as Luna Rossa kept a lose cover on us. We would have to hope for a mistake on their part, as the race had now come down to a match race, and every point in this series has been critical.
In the end, we were able to roll Paul Campbell Jones and the Luna Rossa team, and score eighth place. The entire race for us lasted just over 9 minutes, a time filled with incredible hull flying acceleration, and instant death. Afterward, I was rotated off the boat to reflect on what had just happened. The crew, however, needed to put the disappointment behind them and immediately re-focus on the next race. To survive in the Extreme 40 Series, you need a short memory and the fortitude to shake off stress and loss. Every team has at least one bad race, and the key to making out of a race day on top is consistency. Oman Air recovered in the following race, scoring a fourth, but overall the team is struggling to find its consistency. After two days, the team was in ninth overall. By the end of the regatta they’d moved up to eighth, better but with plenty of room for improvement over the rest of the circuit. The next stop is in Cowes, England, in early August.