MUSCAT (Reuters) - Massive high-tech twin-hulled catamarans power toward each other at high speed, a breathtaking view for a “guest” perched on 18 inches of netting behind the rudder.
The instructions for her were simple: hold on to a handle, don’t touch anything else, keep your head down.
Whoosh! Welcome to sailing’s leap into the future, the America’s Cup World Series races in super high-performance boats that are the yachting world’s equivalent of Formula One.
They “fly” across the water - in this case the sparkling blue of the Gulf of Oman - rising up on hydrofoils to reach speeds of up to 30 knots (35 mph/55 kph) in the right winds.
The new style boats - all heading toward the 35th America’s Cup next year in Bermuda - inject adrenalin into both the sport and the hanger-on at the back.
Despite the crew’s constant motion, the only sounds on board are the groaning of the rig under enormous loads, and the sound of the wind. Conversation is kept to a minimum - just numbers and distances to marks shouted out - as the sailors concentrate.
The crew scramble between the hulls on trampoline nets to adjust the huge hollow mainsail, which looks more like an aircraft wing, and the smaller foresail. They raise and lower a stabilizing dagger board that allows the boat to “foil”, lifting out of the water and reaching speeds normal boats can’t.
On Sunday, as a Reuters reporter followed the hang-on and don’t-touch rules to the letter aboard Groupama Team France, reigning America’s Cup champion Jimmy Spithill’s TEAM ORACLE USA took an early lead.
Winds on this occasion were relatively gentle. But Groupama and Oracle still powered toward each other with each boats’ two sharp hulls looking like high-tech knives that could slice each other in half if they collided. Hence the crews’ crash helmets and impact vests.
In the end, the French team took a split second decision to duck behind the U.S. crew on their first cross, easing ropes and aircraft-style flaps to depower the rotating mainsail. Groupama then crossed in front of Oracle with inches to spare and took the lead at the third mark, going on to win the race.
The crew, delighted with their first America’s Cup victory, bounced into each other on the trampoline netting, slapping each other on the back of their impact vests.
“We found our form and fixed problems with our start, it means a lot to win. We’re a new team on the circuit and have less experience of foiling than the other teams but every day we’re learning and improving to get to that level,” skipper Adam Minoprio said.
The hanger-on was left speechless.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt