x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Baird cannot wait to do battle at sea

Ed Baird was holding the wheel when Alinghi retained the coveted America's Cup in Valencia two years ago.

Ed Baird, left, hopes he will be the helmsman for Alinghi for the race in Ras al Khaimah.
Ed Baird, left, hopes he will be the helmsman for Alinghi for the race in Ras al Khaimah.

GENOA // Ed Baird was holding the wheel when Alinghi retained the coveted America's Cup in Valencia two years ago. The experienced American sailor is crossing his fingers that he will again be at the helm when the new version of the Swiss yacht defends the trophy off the shores of Ras al Khaimah in February.

Baird, 51, a former world match racing champion, calls himself a driver rather than the helmsman in Alinghi's 100-plus strong team who will shortly arrive in the country to prepare for the best-of-three series against the American challengers BMW Oracle Racing. And what a vehicle he drives. The recently-launched fifth vessel to bear the Alinghi name made a wonderful spectacle when it was launched on the home territory of Lake Geneva and then lifted by helicopter to its temporary Genovese base on the Ligurian Riviera.

It will turn heads when it arrives sometime in the next four weeks at the team's new headquarters in Al Hamra to build up for the 33rd battle for sport's oldest international trophy to still be competed for. "It's quite frightening when you start thinking of what this boat is capable of," said Baird. Asked how fast Alinghi can go when in full flight, Baird grinned: "That's a trade secret. It is the one question everybody asks but I never give the answer. Trust me, though, it's pretty fast," he said.

"The boat has performed wonderfully so far in the few weeks since its launch. "We all looked at the predictions of how quick and how efficient it would be and were amazed. It's a big boat so it will go faster than a small boat once you get it moving. "You then have to look outside the vehicle to get a sense of how fast it is really going because it glides along so smoothly. "It really is a fantastic feeling to get it to take off. We have often been surprised by how feisty the boat can be and how exciting it can be to be on board."

Baird, who hails from St Petersburg, Florida, forged his reputation on much smaller craft. He compared the experience of helming Alinghi to moving from the controls of a light aircraft to a jumbo jet. "Sailing this big multi-hull requires there to be a tremendous interplay between several key members of the crew, not only to get the best out of the boat but also to make sure it is being handled safely," he said.

"If anybody relaxes in that core group you could find yourself in an extremely dangerous situation. "Unlike a lot of the boats that we have raced on over the years where you could pay attention to something else for a few minutes and then come back to your primary role, it is not the case here. "From the driver's perspective you have to be really clear on the angles you are trying to sail and the potential of the boat to be at risk at various angles.

"You have to monitor all the things that are coming up on the screen in front of you as well as keeping an eye on what's on the horizon." Baird, who first became involved with America's Cup competition in 1995, suffered his low point in 2000 when he was on a craft called Young America which broke in half off the shores of Auckland in what proved a disastrous challenge in a regatta eventually won by Team New Zealand.

His connection with the Alinghi team bankrolled by the mega-rich Italian-born Swiss entrepreneur Ernesto Bertarelli was established in 2004 when he was hired as one of three helmsman for the best-of-seven series against Team NZ in 2007. "After three years training, they let me become the one to drive the boat which was very exciting," he said as he reflected on the comfortable 5-2 victory in Valencia.

February's encounter with Oracle will be a maximum of three races which makes the outcome hard to predict for Baird. "We can't say at the moment whether we think we are going to win or not but we are giving ourselves as good a chance as we can by the way we are preparing for this," he said. "There is a broad range of talents in our camp. "Everybody is good at pushing themselves to a new high and supporting the people around them to do the same.

"They have proven to be pretty successful at choosing the right paths to find and where the best place to be at the end is." Baird has enormous respect for the rival camp and is anticipating a thrilling battle in the waters of the Gulf. "We have a worthy opponent. Not only are they a bunch of great sailors, they are proving to be tremendous public relations adversaries," he said. "They have taken every opportunity to try to make us look bad. It's easier to be like that when you are the challenger.

"You can throw grenades over the fence and see what happens. "We can take everything that comes our way, providing that we eventually get them out to sea to do battle. "That's what we are all here for and it should be a fantastic occasion." wjohnson@thenational.ae