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The Sensory Overload of an America’s Cup Trimmer

American Magic headsail trimmer Dan Morris explains the experience of trimming the headsail on the AC75.

September 21, 2020
Dan Morris on American Magic
Every perspective from on board an AC75 is different, and for this America’s Cup headsail trimmer, the view is amazing. Amory Ross / NYYC American Magic

From where Dan Morris ­usually stands on board American Magic’s 75-foot ­foiling America’s Cup yacht, the view is pretty spectacular. It’s a perspective only a handful of humans will ever experience. It’s wet and windy, and it’s Zen-like when the boat soars at 40 knots. As the portside headsail trimmer, Morris has the luxury of full visibility of his towering sail. He can see up the leech and across the acreage of black cloth, its dozens of yarns flickering and painting a picture of the wind as it streams across both sides of the sail and exits with full force in his face. He can observe the leeward side of the twin-skinned mainsail as well, plus the big grinder in front of him, relentlessly pumping hydraulic oil so he can make microadjustments at will. This is life in the slot for Morris, and life is good when all senses are being bombarded.

Sights in the Slot

I’m on the port forward ­pedestal, facing forward, so I can see what’s coming on the water from only about 30 seconds out. I can’t see what’s coming at 10 seconds. Because I’m trimming on the leeward side, I can see the jib really well, but with all the end-plating we do on the mainsail, I can’t see the windward side at all. I can see way out in front of me, but I can’t see the gust that’s going to hit in three seconds. It’s quite different from a normal boat in that way.

On starboard tack, I’m in this deep chasm of a cockpit—up to my shoulders more or less. The wind rushes through the slot, and there’s so much wind in my face that my eyes are always watering. I don’t wear sunglasses when I sail because they change the way I see the breeze and the sails, so I’m always squinting as hard as I can to keep them from ­watering too much.

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One of the coolest things about being on the leeward side trimming the sail is there’s never that mental trade-off of “should I be hiking or trimming the sail perfectly?” like I would on normal boat. I always have sight of my sails, something I never get on most boats.

When I look to leeward, all I see is a massive plume of spray coming off the foil. That’s when I realize how fast we are going. I’m looking at our targets on the display, and trim to them most of the time—unless we are in a different mode for tactical reasons. I’m looking at the leech, the entry of the sail, and trying to balance the power from top to bottom.

If we want to go fast, we need a flatter, more twisted sail. If we want to go high mode, we want a deeper sail, so I have to balance the power across the whole sail. That’s the coolest thing about these boats: I can see the entire sail and make continual adjustments. When I sail a conventional boat, I can get only a snapshot of the sail profile when I go to leeward, and then go hike and try to know what the sail looks like from the leeward side. On the AC75, trim is instantaneous; I can make any adjustment I need at any time. I never have to decide whether it’s worth leaving the rail to make an adjustment. It’s always worth the adjustment.

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When I’m on the weather side, on the opposite tack, I’m grinding more, but I get to have a look out of the boat and see the breeze; that’s when I can sort of calibrate myself. I have a better look at what the main trimmer and driver can see with the mainsail; I can see the wind, see how the boat is reacting, and link these mental images together when I’m back on the other tack.

The other part of my sight is that I have this massive human in front of me pumping away, and he can block my view sometimes, so I have to look around him as well. Also, the mainsail is big and always moving, and it can block my view of other things. That’s the big trade-off: I can see my sail, but I can never see upwind of what I’m ­trimming to.

The Sounds of Efficiency

When I’m on the leeward side and trimming, I can’t hear anything that anyone says on the boat. Ever. Terry (Hutchinson) is right behind me, and he and Dean (Barker, helmsman) and Paul (Goodison, mainsail trimmer) all have comms, and they can speak into their microphones. The rest of us have earpieces, but there’s so much wind going over my face and past my ears that a lot of what I hear is like having my head out the car window on a freeway.

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I feel changes to the boat, for sure—with my entire body—and in my position, I really have to anticipate. If I know it’s going to be shifty and we just got into a puff, I know we’re probably going to be going into a lull pretty soon, so I’m planning for what my next move is going to be and what needs to happen in what order. It’s not quite the same as visual anticipation, but it links into the hearing part of sailing the boat in that any verbal cue I get off Dean or Goodie saying, for example, “The breeze is building” or “Shot coming,” I can be ready for it. On regular boats, the trimmer is usually calling the breeze back to the driver, but with this, it’s opposite. Dean calls out what he sees in the breeze, and that’s a call to me to be prepared to make an adjustment to match what he’s going to do with the wheel and what Goodie is going to do with the mainsail.

Going into a tack, I hear the calls coming from Dean—always super calm and neutral. It’s a steady, “Set up tack, and then 3…2…1….” The cadence from Dean is always the same. He’s soft-spoken, so I always have to be searching for it. Then I go straight to my processes. Once the boat starts to turn and we start to slow down a bit, some of the wind noise goes away. The foils get a bit quieter, then the traveler car and sails cross the boat, and that’s quite noisy. When the mainsail pops, ­everyone knows it. It’s a big mainsail with two skins and twice the sets of battens popping. As we build speed again, all the other noises come back. Hopefully the foils are not making too much noise, but sometimes they do, and that’s just water over the trailing edge, just like the hum on a 420 ­centerboard on a windy reach.

In and out of any maneuver, we’ve got the guys pumping a lot of oil to get the boat settled. Imagine coming out of a maneuver on any big boat; there’s a lot going on with sails being eased and retrimmed or flattened and deepened, and that takes energy, so everyone is just hammering away at the handles. I hear the grunts of the big dudes as they’re putting in massive effort. The electric pumps for the foils are whining away, like they do on a canting-keel boat. Then it gets quiets right out the maneuver, and I just hear the wind rushing over my ears and the comms from Dean and Goodie about what we’re going into next.

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The Feel of Fast

The AC75 feels like a big Airbus jumbo jet. Everything is so big and loaded. It’s not the same as with a Moth, which is loose and fast; this thing is very locked-in and smooth. It’s a giant piece of machinery, which makes it feel slower, but the speeds are really high. And even though it is this big locked-in thing, when we go through gusts and lulls and have big changes in lift on the foils, the speed changes fast, so the boat can get loose sometimes. If it does, my feet are trying to hold onto the deck as best I can, which sounds silly, but I’m always trying to stay connected to the boat. If I don’t, I get tossed around a bit. It’s like standing in the back of a pickup truck doing doughnuts in a parking lot. My hands are either on the handles or on the sheet so I have something to hold onto, but when we bear away, it’s full-on G-forces, so I have to brace myself against something. One thing for sure is it brings real fatigue into my lower body from stabilizing myself all day.

When I’m trimming, the sheet is pretty loaded and I have to be accurate with every adjustment, so I really have to have a firm hand on the sheet so I never accidentally overease it. The jib is very high-aspect, so a small ease on the sheet does a lot to the shape of the sail, top to bottom.

When we take off, I get a good hosing from the foil arm. It’s worse for the guys on the windward side. Water comes at me with pretty good force when we’re going that fast, so it’s cold. Usually it’s really cold at the beginning of the day, but once I’m warmed up, it’s not a big deal. The wettest part is takeoff because the whole boat is in displacement mode and both foils arms are submerged, but once we’re up on the foil and in the air, it’s pretty dry.

The Smells and Tastes of Team Effort

I sail with Luke (Payne) ­opposite me on the pedestal. He’s one of my best friends and an awesome guy to sail with, and yes, he’s got proper odor. We used to sail against each other in the match racing and he had the same scent, but it’s a very comfortable scent to me to go racing. Other than that, it’s hard to smell anything on the boat because your nose gets really dried out because of the wind flow. But the one defining smell of this campaign, for real, is the smell of good, hot coffee. We are now in the land of coffee. New Zealand has some of the best coffee in the world, and I guess that’s because they love it so much. All the boys in the boat love coffee. I suppose we all drink a bit too much, but there’s a camaraderie to it as well. You have your best meetings when you have a coffee together. (Team testing manager) Anderson Reggio is also a coffee lover. He has a little 12-volt espresso maker that he brings out with him on the chase boat. He’s an analytics guy, so he likes it right. He’ll have his espresso that he makes midday, and if I’m lucky, I might get one off him. I’d be in favor of having a proper espresso set up on the chase boat. If I were at the top and in a position to make big team decisions, that would be the first thing I would do.


RELATED: Weighing In On The AC75


There’s also the smell of the base in the morning. It’s the smell of work. These boats are heavily reliant on hydraulics, so the smell of the oil is always there. That’s the first scent that hits me when I come into the base. After that, I check my gear in the container with the drying room and make sure my personal kit is ready for the day. As you can imagine, there’s a pretty foul smell in there with 20 guys’ gear and wetsuits hanging in here. We have long days on the water, and you just rinse it and hang it up; it’s close to the smell of a hockey locker room.

Then, it’s breakfast. We’re lucky to have good teammates sort out our food, always making sure we have nutritious food, and that we get our bacon. I love the smell of warm breakfast, especially when I don’t have to make it myself.

On the water, once you get out and away from the city, the air is definitely fresh and clean, especially when the breeze is coming off the ocean—that’s always a treat.

The Sense of Space

As high-tech and wired as the boat is, there is a definite seat-of-your-pants element to it as well. We’re not sitting, per se, but I definitely feel all the subtle motions of the boat. I have the performance numbers in front of me all the time, but they’re more of a report card of how we did in the last second or two; they don’t tell us how we’re doing in that instant. Feel is different for everyone, so it’s a hard one to describe. When you take off enough times, you get a feel for ­anticipating what the boat will do next and what it needs in order to do that.

Like any boat, flat is fast, and whatever the perfect heel angle might be, we have to stick to it. Heel angle is huge, and that’s one we can get from sight, especially for the guys looking aft; they’ll be looking at the horizon across the transom. But I also get that heel sensation through my feet; I can instantly feel changes to heel angle before I see it.

When the windward foil gets dropped, that’s essentially the start of the turn, and everything is focused on how that foil responds to the water. If it connects well and everything goes right, it’s very fluid. That’s all on (flight controller) Andrew Campbell. I don’t envy his job at all and don’t want anything to do with it—ever. He has to get it right. If just one little thing goes wrong when the foil goes into the water, it has a huge effect for a bit after the maneuver. If it enters well, the attitude and feel of the boat don’t change at all. It feels seamless. The heel angle is consistent, and we exit not much slower than when we started the turn. It’s magical when it happens. If it doesn’t go in perfectly, it throws off the way the boat feels and the way it reacts to everything else. In that case, everything needs to get readjusted; everything on the boat is moving, the rate of turn is changing, and you’re slower out of the maneuver. It’s a huge effort to get back up to speed. We’re still foiling and going fast, but everything is unsettled, and it’s a big job to lock it all in again.

I’m also feeling the pitch of the boat; the bow up-down trim is huge. The foils have a big effect on that, but so do the sails. As much as I’m feeling the heel angle and using that to judge how to balance the power in the sails, I’m also thinking about how my sail trim affects the pitch. The 75s being so big, the boat is quite steady when we dial in the pitch.

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