Normally, a ride on a race boat in America's Cup challenger trials is worth quite a chunk of change. Some big spenders donate hundreds of thousands of dollars before they get an invitation to come aboard as 17th man and watch a race from the catbird seat.
But it's early in the season and a lot of big contributors haven't arrived, which left a spot open for 17th man in the last race of the first round robin Thursday--the long-awaited matchup of Paul Cayard's AmericaOne and the New York Yacht Club's Young America, top U.S. boats in the fledgling regatta.
The breeze was up, seas were foamy and I was willing and able when the offer came.
You don't climb a ladder to get on one of these sleek, 75-footers and nobody pipes you aboard. You simply step up on the rubber side of a streaking inflatable skiff, dodge the cascading spray, grab anything you trust on the speeding big boat and make your move. I saw Cayard wave a welcoming hand, and I was over the rail and onto AmericaOne before he could change his mind.
Forty-five minutes remained before the start. We could see charcoal gray Young America cleaving the waves nearby, steady Ed Baird at the wheel. AmericaOne charged along at nine knots, bashing through the whitecapped seas off Rangitoto Island in the Hauraki Gulf. It was blowing 20 knots, and all 16 crewmen were preparing for battle.
AmericaOne already had won its morning race over Young Australia, an easy win but not without incident. Designer Bruce Nelson, a crewmember as well as the man who drew the lines for the boat, was hunched in the stern, discussing on a cell phone some creaks and bangs he'd heard in the preceding race.
I never learned the nature of his concern, if any, and it's just as well I didn't, having signed an agreement that guaranteed silence about anything secret I might overhear. He shrugged when he hung up, and we were away.
I glanced up the 110-foot-tall carbon fiber mast and saw bowman Curtis Blewitt hanging from a line near the top. He had some seizing line in hand and was trying to corral the leading edge of a batten that had sprung out of its sleeve in the mainsail and was threatening to dig a hole into the mast.
He was a long way up for the conditions; then again, he'd spent hours up the mast of Cayard's Whitbread 'Round-the-World Race winner, EF Language, in the Southern Ocean in the last Whitbread Race. He looked comfortable.
Two other crewmen were busy wrapping the steering wheel with twine and duct tape. It seems all the spray coming aboard made the carbon fiber wheels too slippery for Cayard to hold. A Cup boat has two wheels so the skipper can switch sides when he tacks. Cayard steered with one while the crew taped the other, but they wrestled with it so hard, he had to wave them off.
"Hey," said the mustachioed San Franciscan, whom many consider the best big-boat sailor in the world, as AmericaOne slowed and nosed into the wind. "Ease off that wheel. You're tacking the boat."
According to Paul Henderson, head of the International Sailing Federation, the America's Cup features the best boats and best sailors in the world. Getting a chance to sail in a Cup race behind Cayard as 17th man is akin to getting to stand behind Robbie Alomar at second base in baseball's American League Championship Series.
So it was comforting to see it was still just a boat, as balky and troublesome as the little ones we sail back home, and these were still just sailors, trying to solve unexpected problems with twine and duct tape and ingenuity.
"Thirty-five minutes to the warning gun," yelled tactician John Kostecki, an Olympic silver medalist.
The next half-hour was pure pleasure as AmericaOne slashed upwind and down, making the strange creaks and groans that bespeak the tremendous loads exerted on the rig by the sails, which tower over the boat. "When the wind is up like this," confided Nelson, the designer, "it's all we can do just to pull the sails in."
My spot in the back was between two massive turning blocks called running backstays that tension the lines holding up the mast. "There's not much to hold on to back here," mainsail trimmer Terry Hutchinson of Annapolis shouted at me over the din. "When we tack, just keep your weight low and then when the boat levels out, scuttle across to the other side.
"Never grab this," he said, pointing at the block and tackle that controls the mainsail, "or this or this," pointing to the big running backstay blocks. "You don't want to get your hand caught up in a turning block."
I was getting used to the jerky motion of the boat as it bashed along through the waves, and the problem with the loose batten seemed solved. Blewitt was back on deck. The countdown continued.
"Twenty minutes to the warning," Kostecki said. Then, "Ten minutes."
A few minutes later, the big, 40-foot inflatable skiff that had brought me out returned to pick up cell phones, leftover lunches and anything else that wasn't essential. Communication on or off the boat is not allowed after the starting sequence begins, and extra weight is despised on a race boat.
With the boat sluicing along, it was hard to hear, but Cayard was calm and steered with a light hand. Crewmen took their stations at the winches. We saw Young America's crew rehoist the mainsail, which they had dropped for last-minute repairs.
I envisioned the drama of two big, fast yachts dueling at speed in close quarters. Baird is one of the top match-racers in the world, famous for aggressive prestarts. Cayard has been starting helmsman in the last two Cup matches, on Il Moro di Venezia in 1992 and Stars & Stripes in 1995. They are old hands at the wild circling and jousting that establishes control before the gun fires.
We were minutes from all of that when Cayard spun the wheel to turn for the start line and something snapped up the rig. Eyes shot skyward; mouths spat oaths. The repair had given out; the stiff, carbon fiber batten again poked from its pocket, threatening to dig into the mast.
Kostecki grabbed the only communications link left aboard--a radio used to contact the race committee--and asked for time to make repairs. A judge's boat spun up and officials peered up to assess the damage. They were not impressed.
Request denied. Cayard uttered an expletive, than calmly took stock of the situation. "We can't sail like this," he said. "We've got to take it down and fix it."
Which is how AmericaOne came limping into the starting box a few minutes later with only a headsail up and most of the crew forward with sewing kits, tape and tools, trying to get the batten tucked in.
Theirs was a long and fruitless effort. Baird took a run at crippled AmericaOne in the prestart, spinning the wheel and barking a demand: "Come up!" But when Cayard responded, he took pity and sailed away.
AmericaOne started under jib alone and watched the gray boat from New York Yacht Club sail off into the whitecaps. Cayard waited patiently for the mainsail fix, but the longer the crew worked, the less confident they looked.
The boat got deathly silent. The key matchup every crewmember and supporter had eagerly awaited since the regatta began was a washout. Cayard sailed up the course, then back down under jib alone. With half the race done and no hope of catching Young America, he called a halt to the futility.
On the ride back to the dock, Cayard debriefed the crew. He praised AmericaOne's 8-2 performance in the first round, tied for second-best in the 11-boat fleet behind Prada, fleet leader at 10-0.
"Look, guys, we're off to a good start," he said. "We've got some things to work on. Stuff that shouldn't be a problem, is. We need to assess these things that are going wrong, but the pieces are here.
"We've got a fast boat, that's a good thing, and we've got a new boat arriving soon. We've got the bits and pieces. Well be fine. We just have to work hard on these things for the next four months. You guys didn't have anything else planned, did you?"
Then he turned sheepishly to me and said, "Sorry about that." Which is not something you hear every day from an America's Cup skipper.