Some lucky people were at the National Maritime Museum when Wild Oats XI was open to the public for the first time, and got a taste of what sailing on the boat would be like – very scary!
The 100ft boat is basically made of carbon fibre, with a few bits of metal here and there. It was launched in 2005, and has had a number of major modifications and refits since then. They have used the latest technology and been ahead of the game in many respects, so keeping these advances out of the public eye was part of their strategy. Now there are many Maxis using the same technology it is no longer rocket science and no need to keep secret. When Wild Oats XI was open to the public it was only about 50% of its complete racing self, so maybe they still have some secrets, but what we saw was still mind blowing!
Starting on the foredeck we got to see exactly how tall a 46m mast actually is. Being carbon fibre, it is the the most precious thing on the boat and to replace it would take 12 months to build. Something to focus the mind when using the hydraulic winches that are powerful enough to bring it down. The mainsail is also carbon and the size of an A380 wing, just under 1000sq metres.
On the foredeck there are at least 6 guys who are all young, very fit, and maybe a bit crazy. After all they get to change the sails every time the wind speed changes by 2 knots, or the direction changes by 3 degrees. On average a sail would stay up for about 30 minutes. Considering they weigh anything from 100 to 450 kg and have to go below down the forward hatch that is a lot of lifting. Below they must be bagged and then moved aft. They carry 11 or 12 headsails on board, so this weight must be stored close to the centre of gravity – nowhere near the forward hatch. Getting the next sail onto the foredeck in the time window would be no mean feat, requiring many fit guys and a lot of planning, they say at least 3 sail changes ahead.
The foredeck crew are exposed to the normal elements, plus the apparent wind generated by the boat speed. Sailing upwind in 8kts of breeze, Wild Oats is doing 11kts, and the apparent wind across the deck is something like 20kts. Considering Wild Oats has recorded speeds of 38kts, the apparent wind is something that most of us would never experience or never want to experience on land, let alone on a foredeck doing sail changes. No wonder the crew wear face and eye protection!
Considering these speeds, what would happen if someone fell overboard? At a speed of 38kts if you fell overboard and were clipped to the boat, you would be dead just about instantly. However if you fell overboard without a harness, you would watch the boat disappear over the horizon in about 4.5 minutes. Hopefully the crew saw you fall, and pressed the man overboard button on the GPS. They would also start the process of turning back to that spot, but it would take at least 20 minutes. Everybody on deck always wears a bum bag that includes necessary survival gear - a personal locator beacon that is tracked by the boat, (this is only activated 20 minutes after you fell in to save battery life). The bag also includes an EPIRB that is tracked by AMSA and used if the boat cannot find you, dyes, and a few treats that you can eat to keep you occupied counting down 20 minutes until you can press your PLB button. They do wear lifejackets, but these only prolong death if you don’t have the bum bag!
In the cockpit there are lots of big winches, all hydraulic the biggest of which can move 20 tonnes. All have gauges to prevent stuff ups. The only thing that is manual on the boat is the steering and the helmsmen only steer for 30 minutes at a time.
Down below it is very spacious without the 11 sails on board. The 20 crew all have a space to put their personal items – it is the size of a winch handle holder and a pair of sunglasses fits in nicely. There are 26 bunks, but only a few are ever used and only according to the proper weight distribution. The crew only get 2 hours off, and considering the motor is always running, together with the noise of sails and water running past the hull, there is no quiet space below. The Sydney to Hobart race is considered a sprint race for them (about 24 hours), so sleeping is not expected.
Wild Oats withdrew from the last Sydney to Hobart race because the canting keel ram failed, the reason for the failure is unknown. The ram carries some enormous dynamic load and when it snapped, the boat fell over with the mast in the water, with water gushing in below decks. Most crew thought that the boat would sink so life rafts were deployed but the boat captain thought they could save Wild Oats by using a manual system to get the keel back into position, which they managed to do. They righted her, bailed the water out and motored to Eden. The metal ram will now be replaced every 4 years at a cost of half a million dollars each time (at today’s costs). It makes the repairs of our little boats sound miniscule.
Aft of the canting keel is the motor which runs non-stop. No motor – no sailing. They used to have 2 motors, just in case of failure, but that was extra weight, so now one really well looked after motor does the job. Being someone who likes the motor off when sailing, I glazed over when the details of the hydraulics, inverters, etc. were described. Of course battery power is needed to run the microwave, the only way of making the dehydrated food edible, and the computers. Two computers (one as back up) run the show with 100 channels of data inputs, plus internet from a satellite dome, manned by a navigator and strategist. They have nice bucket seats, but sitting just behind the motor, there is no protection from the noise and other activities all around them.
On reflection, the people who sail these boats are in a totally different league to those of us who think sailing is when your boat is propelled by sail alone. Wild Oats and other Maxis can get to amazing speeds, the technological advances they have made are incredible, and the skill of the crew is amazing, but it still seems odd that a yacht cannot survive without the motor running.