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From Kings to Sewer Rats in Valencia 2007

The royal families of Europe  are meeting in Valencia. The rich moor their megayachts  offshore and in the heart of the new port. Big business executives are pursuing marketing strategies hoping to increase their companies’ fortunes while millions watch the America’s Cup. Meanwhile, the visiting public in Valencia admire the spectacle and the people of the host town are proud of their new-found status. The technicians design and redesign systems and the crews fight with precision to be part of the team that will win the 2007 America’s Cup. The Louis Vuitton organisation, through their continued pursuit of excellence, set the basis for a competition endorsing the comment made to Queen Victoria in 1851 that “there is no Second."

Presently at the Louis Vuitton Cup Semi Finals in Valencia, and having witnessed the acts in Marseille, France and Trapani, Sicily, one is impressed by a number of aspects of this great sporting event. The three venues are all splendid. The social and marketing functions associated are all exquisite. Yesterday, The King Juan Carlos of Spain, the 18th man on Desafio Espanol, and a key motor behind the development of yacht racing in Spain, was present, as was Prince Albert of Monaco and the Princess Alexia of Greece. With confidence the towns involved have thrown themselves into these events. They have realised in record time modern infrastructures to live on beyond the final regatta. The extended port area of Valencia will, for example, be the site of a new Formula One road race circuit in 2008. The team bases will change names and functions.  Team Shosholoza, ‘the soul of sailing,’ (whose motto is proudly posted on the outside of their building : ‘one team, one dream, one nation,’) will be transformed maybe into the Ferrari pit garage. Valencia will then continue to attract the world’s public, sharing its long history, the amazing modern architecture of their native Santiago Calatrava, and the breeze that freshens this beached coastline

The Louis Vuitton Cup exists since the Cup left America in 1983 and has been the trophy awarded to the boat that has won the challenger’s series and hence the honour to race the America’s Cup. The level of race organisation is probably second to none. This world-renowned company has stamped its mark on these regattas, adding the style, sophistication, and an attention to detail which is omnipresent. The America’s Cup management of the defender, Mr. Ernesto Bertarelli, initiated the idea of the Acts around Europe leading up to the final scene in Valencia ; these will conclude with the final curtain dropping and a proud team holding aloft the coveted America’s Cup. These two lead players have made the 2007 America’s Cup a unique event and as the closing date approaches there is much speculation as to what might happen if a non-European Team should win this time around.

If one has the good fortune to get close to these craft, a number of innovations become apparent. These AC boats indulge in a level of technological research that will surface later on all our boats. Some basic ideas like reducing all weight aloft, in the choice of halyard materials, hoisting moused halyards to the mast head when not in use, and using lighter textile or carbon standing rigging, if applied to a cruising vessel would reduce pitching and windage and hence improve significantly boat speed. Even the basic boat preparation would make any cruising boat safer, faster, and easier to sail. Halyard leads and spectra loops to attach blocks for a perfect orientation are all examples where every boat could profit. Vacuum bagging unused spinnakers as the AC challengers do, would give more stockage space aboard and avoid fungus growth in damply stocked spinnakers.

As a sail maker I am tempted to focus here on the sail development. The 3DL large roached mains and incredibly light genoas are perfect examples of where sail making is going beyond an art to a real science. The carbon battens or the increased uses of pneumatic systems have all pushed the barriers further. The combination of the down wind spinnaker shapes and new nylons that are stable and dry rapidly make special sense as the one downwind cruising sail of choice for all our boats.

But of all the things to see and experience here I would like to share, as I understand it, the role of what is affectionately known as the ‘sewer rat’. This post I would never survive but in each team, it is basically the crew member below deck preparing the sails for the next leg. So as the kings and dignitaries wave to the public, these men work like coal miners in a blackened environment of carbon, doing their job with sweat and precision.

During the pre start and first leg the sewer rat is actually above deck grinding and working on the bow, equipped with harness of tools ready to be hoisted in the rigging if there are any problems. But when the navigator shouts five minutes from the windward mark, the ‘rat’ is sent into the ‘sewer.’ Beneath the foredeck there are lights, only non-reflective carbon. As ropes are shocked, the sound resonates here and with each wave this darkened space pitches and heels. The hatch is opened for the hoist. As the bow pitches, the first wave of cold water invades. The selected sail and type of hoist is called from back in the boat. The dry spinnaker of 30 kg is hoisted by hand into its hammock and the vacuum bag torn open. With care the halyard, guys and sheets are attached through the opened hatch, still supplying a rhythmic cold shower. At about ten lengths the rat pops out of his hole to help the tack forward to the pole. One length and hoist, the sail is set in about eight seconds as the head rockets to the head and the wools break open. Any mistake, the sail will need to be dropped and probably the race lost.

The now redundant headsail is dropped onto the deck and bagged ready to be stocked or be reused on the next leg. In the later stages of the Cup, genoas have a life of around forty tacks. A staysail is brought on deck hoisted and unfurled. These sails as with all boats do not as much develop drive but lee helm that on a cruising boat avoids broaching and on any yacht avoids excessive rudder angle and hence drag.

The genoa may be changed but is hoisted and staysail dropped at under ten boat lengths from the chosen gate mark. The gate system is where two leeward marks exist and that one can choose which to round. The choice is basically called as to the perceived favoured side of the course and if the second boat wants to break cover and gain separation it may choose differently than the leading boat.

The drop is virtually on the mark and is amazingly quick. The ‘sewer rat’ will grab the retrieval line which runs up through the spinnaker and attach it to a line connected to the utility winches. “Drop” the halyard is realised and the retrieval line pulls the middle of the spinnaker first down through the hatch at a speed that nobody could tail. In ten seconds, the boat goes from a hoist spinnaker to a spinnaker nearly the size of two tennis courts below deck. Here the boat starts up its windward leg with 20 degrees of heel. The forward hatch is shut, and calf-deep in water this time, the sewer crew member checks the sail for tears. If found, he may dry the tear with acetone and will stick a patch using the hull of the boat as a support. He has fifteen minutes to follow the leeches, re wool the sail ready for the second hoist. During this time the boat may tack up to thirty times. Exhausted, the sail is re hoisted bagged by hand back into its hammock under the deck. Some down wind legs, the spinnaker may have been pealed (changed) in which case there are two spinnakers to pack. By the time all of this is done the windward mark is in sight and it’s time to start over again.

On the drop the grinders would not hear a scream below the deck if the “sewer rat” were not to keep clear. But, on the way back into the port, to the debriefing, where the technical crew are ready to move onto the boat, he is back into the sun once more. The public cheer along the length of the sea wall, and the official guests sip champagne on the official yachts. The sponsors and Media await in the foredeck club, a beautifully calm modern designed space of great elegance. Here, the victors, the “rat” included, are kings.  

Andrew Dove is Area Manager for North Sails Caraibes, based in Guadeloupe.

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