Listen to this article
The smile on Roman Hagara’s face when I say that I was once a pretty decent sailor is friendly but undeniably forced. It tells me all I need to know about how useful I am going to be on his racing catamaran.
Hagara skippers the Red Bull Extreme Sailing team, leading a crew that, between them, boasts four Olympic gold medals, five world and nine European championships. I decide not to pipe up about my Isle of Man yacht club sailor of the year trophy and a handful of regional tournament medals. No one likes a show-off.
Next month Hagara and crew will assemble in Cardiff for the fifth round of the Extreme Sailing Series – an international annual touring championship, akin to motorsport’s Formula 1, following an eight-leg circuit that also takes in cities such as Sydney, Muscat and Istanbul.
Four weeks ago I joined Hagara’s crew in St Petersburg for the fourth round, to race on one of the world’s fastest yachts, against some of the world’s most successful sailors. A popular sneer among sailors is that some have “all the gear and no idea”. As I pulled on my team jacket and cap, at least I knew I had the former covered.
The competing boats are purpose-built 40ft-long catamarans of lightweight carbon fibre, and hideously overpowered. They hurtle across the waves at speeds of more than 65 kmph, tilting over so that only one hull is in the water – and veering perilously close to each other in harbours that are tiny compared to the wide open spaces of ocean racing. Fans are generally watching less than 50m away on the shore.
If the America’s Cup is sailing’s equivalent of cricket’s Ashes series, this is the breathless, entertaining spectacle of Twenty20, one part sport, one part glitz and glamour. “Sailing used to be about races on lakes, or far offshore where there was space to go fast, but nobody could see,” said Hans-Peter Steinacher, Hagara’s sailing partner. “Now we come up close, we are in the middle of the city. But we are still going fast.”
Everything about the Red Bull boat, its specifications identical to those of its 11 rivals, is designed for speed. Its 1,400kg weight, roughly the same as a Volkswagen Golf, means the twin rudders can be operated with the lightest of touches. But such is the power created by the enormous 75 sq m of Kevlar mainsail that hydraulic pumps are needed to control it.
Sailing races traditionally use simple courses where the boats start by zigzagging upwind, before turning around and sailing back with the wind behind them. In the Extreme series, the compact routes are more like car racing tracks, with rectangular courses made up of shorter distances marked out by colourful buoys.
As the beach along the Russian city’s River Neva began to fill with spectators on a warm Saturday morning in June, we hoisted the mainsail and cast off from our mooring, in the shadow of the Peter and Paul Fortress.
While we glided down to the racing area to practise our manoeuvres, the crew settled into their roles. The two veterans, Hagara and Steinacher, sat at the back, Roman steering as Hans-Peter worked the mainsail. Midships, Mark Bulkeley – a Briton with a dry sense of humour and a proclivity for profanity – trimmed the front sails, while Nick Blackman and Stewart Dodson, two New Zealanders with accents as broad as their forearms, bounced across the netting strung between the hulls as they worked the ropes.
At its best, the team works like clockwork: every man knows his job. It quickly became apparent that mine was keeping out of their way and following orders.
“Pull it in, pull it in!” barked Hagara while I ground on the pulley that adjusts the boom. As I turned the winch, the rope wrapped up like thread on a bobbin, pulling the rope attached to the mainsail closer. “More!” I winched faster. “Enough!” I stopped. “No! Let it out!” Small margins, I quickly grasped, are everything.
On the two-handed dinghies I used to sail, hoisting the headsail, which is used when sailing with the wind behind you, was something I did without thinking. Hauling the spinnaker to the top of the Red Bull boat’s 62ft mast in seconds made my arms burn as if doused in acid.
And then, after less than a minute of downwind sailing with the boat at its most powerful, I pulled the foresail down again as we turned back upwind. Release it like this, pack it like that, secure it here, explained Dodson.
The fast-paced nature of the racing is the series’ selling point, along with its inner-city venues. But on the water, the teams care only about winning. There was little time to take in the Winter Palace on the riverbank, as the first of the day’s 10 races got under way in a blur of rippling sailcloth, whirring winches and spray.
While Blackman barked out details of rival boats’ tactics as we converged on the start area, I tried to remember the words of the pre-racing team talk. Where was the river current strongest? What was that about laylines?
The start line was a cacophony as skippers shouted at each other and barked orders at their crew, and as rope squealed through pulleys. Almost every boat was skippered by a legend of the sport. Hagara and Steinacher are Austria’s most successful summer sportsmen, and in the 1990s they raced against each other until Steinacher quit to run his family’s tyre business. Then, two years before the 2000 Olympics, he contacted Hagara with an offer to team up. They won gold in Sydney and again in Athens four years later, and have raced together ever since.
At the start of one race, we sped past Sir Ben Ainslie, the world’s most decorated Olympic sailor, only to be overtaken a few moments later by Franck Cammas, who once held the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe.
The boats, each costing about £300,000, swerved within inches of each other as their windward hulls reared out of the water. There were several crashes – none my fault, thankfully. And there was nothing that compared with previous rounds where boats punched holes in, and ripped chunks off, each other’s hulls.
The first race of the day was a success. A bold start on the unfavoured side of the course saw us skirt the bulk of our rivals. We finished the race in second. Our tails were up. It was, however, a false dawn. Red Bull had a mixed event in Russia, winning some races but limping home in others to finish ninth overall.
Hagara, philosophical to the end, said that at least they were “better than last time”. Given that last time, in Qingdao, China, they almost sliced the end off a rival’s boat, I was happy with that.
The fifth round of the Extreme Sailing Series presented by Land Rover is in Cardiff, August 22-25; extremesailingseries.com
Photographs: Predrag Vuckovic/Red Bull