Thronging crowds, lightning-quick boats and spectacular capsizes – think sailing is an élitist sport? The Extreme Sailing Series begs to differ.
Within a tiny section of Boston Harbour, the Red Bull Extreme Racing team’s catamaran heads toward the starting buoy at 17 knots and turns left, pitching the boat 25 degrees on its side. The five men on board cling to the right hull, now around 1.8m above the water. After that, The Wave, a boat skippered by England’s Leigh McMillan, cuts inches in front of the Red Bull boat and skirts across the starting line with an early lead.
“Bastard!” shouts Red Bull’s trimmer, Will Howden, McMillan’s Olympic teammate with Great Britain. Skipper Roman Hagara, twice an Olympic gold medallist for Austria, immediately tacks the boat to the right to avoid a collision, losing valuable time. It’s the first seconds of the Extreme Sailing Series race, and already disaster has very nearly struck.
But in a race format that features 11 40ft-long catamarans on short courses (on average, around 365m long), disaster is the norm. A month ago in Istanbul, the boat sponsored by Switzerland’s Alinghi collided with Team Extreme, a boat owned by the Extreme Racing series, destroying its left carbon-fibre hull, a part costing around R910 500.
Capsizes are always in the offing. In rough conditions along the Quingdao coast in China in April this year, four boats tipped over in one day. Last year, the Red Bull boat went over in choppy seas off the coast of Oman; on his way into the water, Hagara clipped the rudder with his left arm, causing a gash that required 14 stitches.The crowds – most of them totally new to yacht racing – embrace the accidents with the same kind of hush that accompanies the crash and burn of a racing car. With all the speed and carnage involved, yacht racing acquires a new legion of fans at every stop – which is the entire point of the series.
“We’re doing something unique by putting the races right in front of people,” says Mark Turner, executive chairman of OC ThirdPole, the sports-marketing company that runs the series. “We’re really trying to make people feel as involved with the races as possible.”
Read the full article in October's issue of The Red Bulletin.