I was lying on a net strung between the two hulls of a racing catamaran less than a metre above foaming the water racing by beneath me. All around were ropes, pulleys, steel cables and carbon fibre. Above me the huge sail emblazon with the Oman Air logo was filled with the wind and taut. The five crew members were racing around yelling commands in a language (“sailingese”) I only half understand. Suddenly the breeze picked up and one hull rose out of the water, tilting the netting deck towards the vertical. I clung on to the net hoping we would not end up like the boat in the video they showed us prior to getting on board. All five crew were on the side of the boat leaning out to counter balance the power of the breeze; meanwhile I was still clinging on to the net with whitening knuckles. This was my adrenaline fueled introduction to the Extreme Sailing Series.
Oman Air sponsor one of the boats and had invited me to experience the thrills and spills of this relatively new kind of big boat racing. Most large boat racing is done offshore and is not really a spectator sport due to the distance from the shore. Extreme sailing was formatted for the public by bringing sailing from the horizon to a public arena. St Petersburg, Istanbul, Cardiff Bay and Sydney Harbour are just some of the venues used this year.
This is inshore racing in the extreme. The boats come within a few metres of the public, so close that Ben Fogle, TV presenter and adventurer, commented that he coud see what ice creams the crowd were eating. The course is short, the boats large and fast so there is a lot of action. All of it is visible from the shore; it is “stadium sailing”.
The fifth round or act as it is referred to is in Cardiff Bay in 2014. The bay makes and ideal “stadium” with viewing almost all around. The 10 catamarans didn’t look like they would have much room for manoeuvre let alone racing at speed. However with skippers of the calibre of Ben Ainsley and Rob Greenhalgh that would not be a problem. Dozens of Olympic medal winning sailors, Americas Cup veterans and numerous other sailors with world class acheivements crewed the boats alongside youngsters still gaining experience. Oman Air and sister boat The Wave Muscat were bringing on up and coming Omani sailors under the tutelage of Oman Sail.
Lots of fast boats in the confines of Cardiff Bay with highly competitive crews was a recipe for thrills, spills and, if the promo video was any indication the occasional spectacular capsize. It was Formula 1 on water. This was what I was being invited to participate in by the Oman Air team.
The Oman Air boat was skippered by Rob Greenhalgh and crewed by three Omanis and one expatriate. All boats are identical so it is the skill of the skipper and his crew that determine the outcome of the race. I was invited on board and given a place to crouch where I would be out of the way. I was relieved that I was not required to help crew the boat but I was told to instantly obey instructions, if given, to move to one side or the other. Two squares marked red and green were indicated as I was not expected to work out which side of the boat was port and starboard. Apart from acting as ballast I was to cling on and enjoy the experience. I was not to embarass the Oman Air crew by falling in.
The race from the start to the first marker was fast and exhilarating. Then came the first turn followed by a few more all at close quarters; and I mean really close quarters. At one stage there was not even space for a sailors boot between us and one of the other boats. The crew were madly dashing from one side to the other, yanking ropes using the coffee grinder (a winch that looks like it is used to grind coffee), hoisting a sail; and they managed to avoid me as I clung on deperate not to embarass myself or the crew.
Race one Oman Air came first beating Ben Ainsley’s J. P. Morgan boat; race two, after being obstructed, we came in sixth.
Here are some more of my photographs of the action.
Oman has a long and illustrious maritime heritage trading with the Indian sub continent and down the east coast of Africa. Oman Air sponsorship and partnering with Oman Sail give opportunities for Omani youngsters with a passion for sailing to enter the international arena. By supporting role models that showcase how determination and a professional attitude can lead to new opportunities Oman Air are helping the next generation of Omani sailors.
Oman Air fly direct from London to Muscat with connections onward to destinations in the Middle East, Indian Ocean and subcontinent and the Far East.