It’s the morning after that blustery day of racing with All4One and the sun has risen, piercingly clear, over the now glassy calm harbour.
The shore managers of Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), which has supplied the two boats for this regatta and has been working through the night to keep them in perfect race-ready condition, have generously agreed to interrupt their intense preparations to give me a quick taste of the most hair-raising job in yacht racing: that of "traveller". In other words, the man at the top of the mast.
It’s the best vantage point from which to spot the telltale patterns on the surface of the water that indicate wind shifts. Miss a crucial shift, or not see it until after the opposing yacht has, and you can
more or less forget about winning the race.
Yesterday with All4One, I had watched in amazement as Olivier Douillard did his take on Spiderman during the race, clinging to the highest crossbar of the mast, scanning the horizon and reporting via his wireless headset to the skipper and helmsman on the deck, almost 35 metres below him. For the duration, Douillard's feet were in contact with the deck only before the pre-start manouvres and after we crossed the line, about 45 minutes later.
Thirty-five metres is high, even at the top of a motionless pole, but during a yacht race, the mast becomes like a pendulum as the boat shifts from one tack to another. Even in a benign 12-knot breeze, where the boat will lean at an angle of about 20 degrees that translates into a swing of tens of metres at the top of the pole. Lose your hand-hold up there and you turn into a human wrecking ball as you are swung back and forth against the rig – except that it’s more likely you who gets wrecked by the impact.
It’s little wonder, then, that they never let “visitors” up the mast unless the boat is safely in the dock – and even then, it’s an extremely rare occurrence. My first step is signing a disclaimer absolving my hosts of responsibility for any accident. Nothing so dramatic as falling off; it could be as simple as breaking my fingers in the rigging as I am winched up and down.
As I'm clipped into a rickety looking harness (a 40cm wide strip of canvas forming a seat, plus some ropes and a cleat to hold it all together) they ask yet again if I’m worried about heights. Again, I
Chris Cameron (ETNZ’s official photographer) goes up first, to get into position above me for the shot; I follow a few seconds later. It’s a bit like abseiling in reverse – with the added complication of
working my way through various stays and crossbars, some of which I can’t see above me until I’m almost tangled in them.
At the top I’m less aware of the zephyr breath of breeze that moves the mast a half a metre off its axis than the stunning view, with the sun reflecting off the tall buildings of downtown Auckland and the Waitemata Harbour beyond them. But I’m not here for that scenery; it’s the boat I have come to see from this high vantage point.
I look down – there’s another boat at the next jetty, the dock, some guys hauling a sail bag… but it’s not until I look directly between my feet, that I can see this boat. It is 26metres long and 3.6m wide, yet from here it looks no bigger than a doll’s skateboard.
I try to picture how it must look to the likes of Douilard, with the boat heeling over, wind lashing his face and nothing but water below him. And I wonder if his is a job for a brave man or a crazy one.