Split-second timing and next-level teamwork is required to race catamarans as tall as four-storey buildings, hulls flying out of the water at 45mph, as Land Rover BAR Academy skipper Rob Bunce reveals to RISING. But how does he lead his crew, who recently won the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup, into the teeth of the wind?
The global Extreme Sailing Series pits the world’s fastest 12m carbon-fibre catamarans against each other in a spectacle of hair-raisingly close racing. Apart from the team graphics each boat is identical so the contest is down to pure skill. Each crew member has to bring an instinctual ability to work under pressure while at the mercy of fickle winds – RISING asked Land Rover BAR Academy Skipper, Rob Bunce, how he choreographs their performance.
RISING Your GC32 catamarans have next-level tech to fly out of the water on blade-thin carbon foils – what does it feel like to go at top speed?
ROB BUNCE, SKIPPER ‘I think the fastest we've gone is about 37 knots [43mph] and anything over 30 knots feels, not out of control, but you know you're going at it – you're going really fast. I think 30 knots is the new 20 knots because it used to be hitting 20 knots was pretty mad on any boat that I've sailed, but this thing does 30 in 17 knots of breeze so it's very fast – it's very easy to get round the course very quickly. The technology has come on a lot but these boats are one design. You can do small little things with how you rig up and set up the boat and the tuning, but the boats are identical – it’s not like The America's Cup.’
RISING Once the boats get enough speed they launch up into the air on J-foils, which act like underwater wings to add lift – it looks pretty intense?
RB ‘Actually when you do foil it does take some of the load off the boat so it is a bit easier, but the difficult bit is when you drop back into the water and everything loads up again – that’s the really hard bit. It's like when you come off the plane of a normal boat everything gets super hard, so the dangerous bit is when you slow down.’
‘You’re in big trouble as soon as you put both bows into the water’
RISING You do see boats capsize and even turn upside down during racing – can you tell when you’re about to go for a swim?
RB ‘Unfortunately I have done it a few times now! The first time I think we were quite new to it, it was our fourth event and it was a bit windy and everyone was a bit excited and we came round the top mark in first and basically everyone was no holds barred, we were going at it – we’ve certainly come a long way since then. The first time it was pretty obvious – you’re in big trouble as soon as you put both hull’s bows in. On a course like this as well where there's lots of tacking into the top marks, where you don't have time to get set up it's very easy to have a good bows in – but we try to avoid that!’
RISING was out on one of the boats and the crew had to work with split-second timing to perform manoeuvres and control the sails – how hard is to direct that choreography?
RB ‘We have a very set playbook, so all our manoeuvres are written down and it's all about getting to know those manoeuvres. Then the more you get to know them the more power and speed you can put into them. I direct from the front so I'll tell what manoeuvres are going to happen, depending on whether we're flying, or one hull in the water, or both hulls in the water.’
RISING Things get pretty hectic when you’re manoeuvring and manhandling sails that are up to 90 metres square, on a 12m boat – how do you structure things to cope?
RB ‘We talk about the front three [of five] as being the workhorse on the boat – so me, the floater and the trimmer – we know each other’s jobs inside out, so as soon as one guy’s got a bit of a problem we just jump straight in and help him. Communication at 30 knots is so crucial that the better friends you are, and the better you get along off the boat, the easier it is on the boat.’
‘Everyone tries to visualise one thing that they'll do better, so you've got that in your head’
RISING Do you have a routine to mentally prepare for the day’s short, sharp races?
RB ‘It's different for every sailor on board – some guys like to listen to some serious rap music and get really in the zone, but I just like to chill out. We'll look at the video from yesterday and the coach will give us a couple of key bullet points to think about – everyone tries to visualise one thing that they'll do better, so you've just got that in your head. It's really easy to have lots of broad points when you're doing a debrief, but I think if you pick a few things to focus on then those small gains over a few training days, and four racing days, will be a big gain.’
RISING What's it like when the chips are down and you're having to motivate the guys on the boat to raise their performance to the next level?
RB ‘It’s pretty difficult but if you have a bad result, you just need to be able to shake it off – I think the key to it in our mind now is just to have a bit of banter on the boat in between races. If it goes a bit wrong you have a 30-second chat about why it went wrong and that's that, you just drop the race there and someone will crack a joke. I think you've got to do that, and the next race is the next race because we do eight, ten races a day and there's maybe a five minute gap in between, so there's not time to dwell. It's quite easy to get into a negative circle, so you do the best you can to stay positive – you want to try and get on a roll in a series, that's how it works.’
RISING The crew has to predict when and where the gusts of wind are coming to use their power – how important is it to be confident in what you’re saying?
RB ‘I think if you're going to say, “There's going to be big pressure coming on in five,” and you get it wrong it's going to be quite embarrassing! So I think practice does make perfect when it comes to the wind. You've got to be confident in what you're saying, especially the helms – they've got to really back their decisions because there's four guys working their arses off in front of them and if they're doing the wrong things, they're obviously going to be upset. But we've full trust in everyone on board, and the helm, if he says what's going on then we'll go for it.’
RISING How instinctual is sailing and the decisions that you make to do with winds and positioning in the fleet?
RB ‘The sails and stuff and the rig is all quite instinctual, but I think the most important thing in this sort of fleet is the startline positioning. Obviously that comes down to a lot of instinct, feeling the boat and you want to be as slow as possible without stopping moving – it's really easy to get caught head to wind [when you stop dead] or with a big wind shift. So yes I think it's all about just feeling where that next wind pressure is going to come from and at the startline we'll have two or three guys just looking at the wind just to make sure that we don't get caught out.’
‘We work in the gym at a high heart rate, then do thinking exercises to simulate problem solving under fatigue’
RISING I know your crew spends a lot of time in a purpose-built gym with machines to mimic the physical jobs on board – some people might be surprised by that given that sailing is wind powered?
RB ‘Fitness has taken over yacht sailing – there's no more parties every night at regattas now! Pretty much all of us are in the gym every day. We do a lot of work where we have a high heart rate and then we've got to do some thinking man's exercises – problem solving under fatigue because at the end of the day you don't have time to sit down, relax, have a cup of tea and decide what your next manoeuvre is. It happens in seconds so the clearer you can think under stress and fatigue, the better you'll get on. These boats are all about choreography and how the crew works together. The more you can get the people doing the same things in the gym as they do on the boat then the easier it is for a team to gel.’
RISING Most of us aren’t likely to get access to yachts or extreme catamarans but do the skills transfer over from smaller dinghies you can sail alone?
RB ‘Yes, there's at least ten Laser sailors in this fleet who've all got right to the highest level of that and then their skills in that transfer straight across. To be honest just doing as much sailing as you can in fast cats and fast boats is the best training for this.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Land Rover BAR Academy in action off the Portuguese island of Madeira...
*Land Rover BAR compete in the Extreme Sailing Series