June 17, 2011 10:00 pm

Modern masters of the sea

 
Magic Carpet sail boat

Magic Carpet² racing at Porto Fino

He’s the quiet one sitting in the corner of the cockpit, looking at the sky. Or the one talking softly in the helmsman’s ear or leaning over the stern with a hand on the backstay, examining the currents and the shape of the waves.

The first time you step aboard a racing yacht, you wonder what on earth they are doing. A wayward nephew of the owner, perhaps, or a business client along for the ride and getting in the way of the sailors? No, these are the tacticians, and in some ways the cerebral job they do is the most important in a racing yacht crew that could include 25 people.

Television images of regattas or long­-distance races tend to focus on the person steering the boat, or the enormous biceps of the “grinders” turning the winches that manipulate the sails, or the athletic antics of the bow-man who seems to shimmy effortlessly to the top of the mast.

These essential tasks take skill, strength and courage, but they can be learned – and, in an emergency, the sailors who perform them can be replaced by others. That’s not so easy with tacticians, some of whom have spent their lives learning and who learn yet more with every race.

For small-boat cruising sailors such as myself, strategy and tactics for high-tech yacht-racing is an alien and somewhat awe-inspiring world, combining age-old maritime instincts with racing savvy and computer software that calculates changes in boat speed and performance – as well as windshifts, tides, angles and the performance of competitors – in milliseconds, hundredths of a knot and fractions of a degree.

The start is by far the most important point at which to ensure tactical advantage in a race, and yet as a passenger on a quiet, well-run boat I sometimes fail to notice that the race has begun as the professionals calmly go about their tasks.

From at least 10 minutes before the start of the race, the tactician generally calls the shots, advising the person at the helm when to tack or gybe (to turn), how to catch up with competitors’ boats or stay ahead of them and how to approach the next mark on the course. He or she is constantly checking the sea for wind that is more favourable – and of course avoiding “wind holes”, the dreaded patches of calm that can make the difference between victory and defeat in a matter of seconds.

“Sailing is like three-dimensional chess,” says Jochen Schümann, the German tactician who advises Lindsay Owen-Jones, the former L’Oréal cosmestics chief, in races aboard Magic Carpet², his 29-metre Wally, one of a dozen boats that will be taking part in this summer’s FT Wally Grand Prix Series.

“It’s about strategy and tactics but you add other dimensions”, he says. “It’s not just black and white squares. Our board is moving all the time.”

Schümann – brought up in east Berlin before the wall fell in 1989 – came relatively late to the world of high-tech superyachts but has a formidable record as a sailor. He started in Optimist dinghies on the Müggelsee, a lake in east Berlin, after constructing his own boat on a school course. “I joined the course to build boats, not to go sailing, but the boat was there, so we had to sail it.”

At the age of 22 he won Olympic gold in the Finn dinghy class in 1976 and earned two more golds and a silver in his Olympic career before contributing as sporting director to Ernesto Bertarelli’s two America’s Cup victories with the Swiss Alinghi team in 2003 and 2007.

A simple Optimist bobbing in the water hardly resembles a carbon-composite America’s Cup racing machine or a Wally cruiser-racer bristling with high-tech equipment, but the basic physics of sailing are the same. So is the need for tactical genius.

Schümann, who has also sailed on other Wallies, including Tiketitan, Open Season and Dark Shadow, says teamwork and a good weather forecast are essential, even if the forecast is “a theoretical model” rather than the truth out there on the water. Above all, the tactician needs to be cool under pressure.

“You must be very experienced and understand the sport well, and understand the complexity of the whole thing,” Schümann says. “You must be a calm personality and communicative. Running a boat is like running a company. There’s lots of different departments and you have to manage it all well.” He adds: “You can’t delay decisions. And if it’s wrong, you have to make another decision.”

Good sailors never stop thinking about tactics, their own or their rivals’. Shortly before I spoke to Schümann in Porto Fino in Italy, where the second regatta of the FT Wally series was held, I had been listening to Loïck Peyron, the successful French sailor, commenting on one of the races.

From the cockpit of Nariida, the 32-metre Wally ketch of Norwegian shipowner Morten Bergesen, Peyron studied the progress of Owen-Jones, Schümann and the crew of Magic Carpet² and declared there was “too much halyard tension” on the gennaker. To a layman, that means that the rope used to hoist the big sail at the front on a downwind leg was pulled too tight and was therefore reducing the boat’s speed by a tiny but competitively significant amount.

In such small ways are races won and lost. Knut Frostad, chief executive of the Volvo Ocean Race and an experienced sailor who skippered Nariida to win the Translantic Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in 2007, says there are obvious tactical differences between racing around the buoys in a couple of hours and a long-distance contest of endurance.

Some rules, however, hold true anywhere. “You don’t win only because you do things right but because others make mistakes.” Or, as Schümann, puts it: “When you’re lucky, everything is a little bit easier.”

Not that you will ever meet a good tactician who relies on luck or takes a wild gamble when the boat has fallen behind: until the final gun, those apparently dreamy men and women staring at the sky and the sea are furiously calculating angles, speeds and manoeuvres to win the race.

Victor Mallet is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief and sailing correspondent

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Details

The Financial Times Wally Grand Prix is a series of regattas taking place throughout the Mediterranean over the summer and the result of a partnership between the yachtmaker Wally and this newspaper. The next events are from September 2-10 in Porto Cervo, Italy, and from September 27-October 1 in St Tropez, France. For details and results see www.ft.wally.com

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