By Tessa Walsh
COWES, England, (Reuters) - The initial fear of being on a huge trampoline net the size of a tennis court as it tilts at 45 degrees is quickly replaced by the sheer exhilaration of flying across the water at more than 30 knots (55.56 km per hour) in one of the world’s fastest boats, the 70-foot trimaran Musandam-Oman Sail.
The multihull flagship yacht of the Sultanate of Oman’s fleet, part of an ambitious sailing program designed to restore the country’s maritime heritage and boost tourism, has been competing in Cowes Week.
The famous regatta on England’s south coast caps a successful season for the team of Omani and European sailors.
Skippered by French yachtsman Sidney Gavignet, they were getting ready for the famously tough bi-annual Rolex Fastnet Race, aiming to win the 46th edition of the 603-mile race from Cowes to the Fastnet Rock off the south west coast of Ireland.
Morale is high after Musandam-Oman Sail were first over the line in the annual Artemis Challenge race around the Isle of Wight last week against 16 of the biggest ocean racing yachts after taking advantage of two helpful wind shifts.
“It was perfect to show off a bit, it’s what this boat was made for, to keep eyes on Oman. We are doing something to make sure people are looking at us,” Gavignet said.
Gavignet, who steers the massive 16-metre wide yacht with a tiller from a reclining office-like chair on top of one of the boat’s three hulls that can fly up to 10 meters above the water, is helping Oman to create a core team of sailors who are rapidly gathering experience and expertise.
Sailing the immensely powerful yacht requires constant and intense concentration and activity from the crew to pre-empt any high-speed incidents in the crowded waters of the Solent, one of the busiest shipping areas in the world.
“You have to think one step ahead, if not you’re too late. It’s very dangerous,” Gavignet said.
Average speeds of more than 30 knots and a maximum of 42 knots give Musandam-Oman Sail trigger-like responses to any movement of the tiller, making it difficult to maintain balance and hold on as the high performance boat accelerates in seconds to speeds relatively few sailors have experienced.
The mast, which is as thick as a man’s body, rotates to give the best angle to the wind. The huge mainsail, which is so heavy that it needs a lock to hold it up, is adjusted by two huge ‘coffee grinder’ winches which need two crew to operate each.
As the massive boat powers up, the coast sliding past at impossibly high speed emphasizes sailing’s jump into the future with radical new multihull yacht designs, which were used for the first time in the prestigious America’s Cup race in Valencia in 2010 to make the sport more exciting for a wider audience.
The key operators on the state of the art boats are the sailors, who are pushed to their limits to keep moving at top speeds, especially in higher wind and offshore waves.
“The ratio of power and weight is greater on this boat. It’s a machine,” Gavignet said.
The toughest conditions for the crew are beating or sailing into the wind or reaching across the wind which whips water into their faces and they often have to wear masks or goggles to avoid eye damage.
“It’s like being smashed in the face,” said sail trimmer Fahad Al Hasni.
(Reuters global loan editor Tessa Walsh is taking part in this week's bi-annual Rolex Fastnet Race on Elixir. Before the start from Cowes on Sunday she filed this report on what it is like to sail on one of the 70-foot high-performance trimarans.)
(Editing by Ed Osmond)