There is nothing quite like driving a yacht when it settles into the groove. The heel of the hull feels just right, the helm is firm, not too light, not too heavy, and the sails set at just the right angle and the sweetest shape. It eases the pain of the last big bill wondrously. Too often though, it is all so fleeting. The wind shifts, something distracts you, and it’s gone.
On a racing yacht in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, the challenge for the steerers is to keep in that grove for 628 nautical miles, be it a glorious sunny reach down the New South Wales coast or beating across Bass Strait on a cold, soaking night.
So how do they do it?
Loki’s helmsman Gordon Maguire is one of the best in the business. He has a feel for driving a boat that allows him to react to changes in boat speed instantly, long before the instruments tell him the Reichel Pugh 62 has slowed that fraction of a knot.
“There is no substitute for feel, he says. “The information from the instruments is all historical. It takes four to five seconds for the instruments to do the calculations from when the cause of the drop in speed occurred. People who drive on the instruments are always four or five seconds behind. They are reactive and the boat is slow. The brain is so much faster at processing all the information coming in at once than the onboard computers.
“Reacting early is as important going down wind as up. People tend to get carried away as the boat accelerates down a wave, but you should already be looking at the exit and how you will catch the next wave. I never look at the dials going down wind.”
says that another problem with focussing too much on the dials is that they are
more likely to engage the front half of the brain, and the key to driving fast
is the subconscious.
“You have to get the intellect out of the way. We drive for long stretches at a time but doing very precise things over and over. If you consciously concentrated for that long you would go mad in half an hour. I switch my mind off. I am not really concentrating. Sometimes I don’t know what has happened in the last 30 minutes.”
It is like driving a car through an intersection that you go through all the time. When you are through it you think, was there a green light? Did I just drive through a red light? But subconsciously you saw a green light and you did what you usually do without thinking.
Yet while it is all about feeling the boat under you, Maguire doesn’t believe that there is any such thing as a natural boat driver.
“Steering a yacht is totally unnatural, just like it is totally unnatural to hit a golf ball. It is only natural if you practice teeing off thousands of times. After a hundred thousand miles you know a boat is going to slow down when it hits a wave and what to do about it.
“I’m not better than anyone else who steers a boat, just more determined.”
to popular assumption, Maguire says it is much more tiring driving a boat in
light wind than heavy. Then he has to concentrate.
“You can’t rely on the heel angle or the load on the wheel, so you have to look at the sails and instruments. I can drive for long periods in strong conditions but when it is light you need to swap shifts constantly.”
relationship between the helmsman and the trimmers, who constantly adjust the
angle of the sails, is critical to a fast boat.
“There is constant chatter between the trimmers and the driver about how the boat feels and how the sails are set. The boat needs a different trim in 12 knots of wind to what it does in 14 or 16, and the wind is constantly going up and down. You know that you are getting it right when the talk drops, but before that there is lots of conversation. The helmsman is just another trimmer, trimming the rudder.
“When racing around the buoys in one design the focus is always on how the boat is doing relative to another. Is the other faster, higher and if so what do we do to match it, and after we do that, what do we do to go faster still. In an ocean race the opposition is out of sight. So in a way your own boat becomes the other boat you are racing against.”
For months leading up to Rolex Sydney Hobart, Loki has been sailing in every type of condition, at every wind angle, with every sail combination, steadily building up a set of numbers that tell the crew how fast the boat can possible go in any particular circumstance. These become the boats “targets”.
we race to our targets 24 hours a day,” Maguire explains.
“As soon as we go off the boil the figures tell us. We know that in 12 knots, say, we should be doing 9.4 knots to windward and we are only doing 9.2. Why are we losing .2 knots? Maybe the helm is heavy and we need to ease out the main, or too light and the main should come on. The good guys get to those solutions very quickly.
“It is very important to have faith in your targets.”
on Loki know that the crew on their rival Limit, a virtual
sistership, are sailing exactly the same way.
“In the Rolex Trophy where we could see each other we got in each other’s way,” Gordon says.
“We were so busy looking at each other the other boats got away from us. It is easier offshore in that respect. We have to sail Loki at 100% for more of the race than Limit does. They say minutes don’t lose Hobarts, but that’s not true. If you’re off the pace for a minute every hour or so, over two or three days that really adds up.
“We can’t affect what happens to the opposition, just ourselves, but having Limit in the fleet is a great incentive to keep pushing when it is cold and wet.
“One of us will do well. The other will do not quite as well.”
By Jim Gale /Rolex Sydney Hobart media team
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