Extreme Sailing in Cardiff

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions
Oman Air yacht

Rob Greenhalgh and crew in Oman Air – the winners of race 1

This weekend on Cardiff Bay, the normally staid yellow waterbuses crossing the bay to Penarth are competing with some of the finest sailors from around the world in act 5 (or race five to us uninitiated) of the Extreme Sailing Series.

Normally at a top sporting event you can’t get within spitting distance of participants. Here visitors can walk along the bay front as the catamarans pull in; entry to the race village is free; there is a carnival atmosphere as it coincides with the Cardiff Festival down in the bay and you can see world-famous sailors such as Ben Ainslie, Rob Greenhalgh, Dean Barker, Morgan Larson, Franck Cammas and Roman Hagara. Having names half the group it seems invidious not to mention the others because their achievements belittle those of many sportsmen even if they are not as widely known outside their own fraternity. They are Nathan Wilmot, Jerome Clerc, Leo McMillan, Igor Lisovenko and the two man skipper team of SAP,  Rasmus Kastnet and Jes Gram-Hansen.

What is extreme sailing? It is where  – in this case – eleven identically built catamarans race each other is short, sharp races where the hulls can lift out of the water as the wind drives the boats along at speeds up to 35mph.  Each lasts less than fifteen minutes though to me, it seemed a lot shorter. The winds change almost every race and the plan in one won’t necessarily work in the next. Of the eight races that were on that day, there were five different winners.

the start

all eleven at the start of one race

Sometimes it is called stadium racing because – as in a football or rugby stadium – you sit in one seat but you can clearly see most of the action. Except that because the boats and sails are so big, you can see better than I have done watching some matches.

To see one of the hulls flying above the water, sails stuffed with wind is quite a sight to see.

And visitors can. All through this weekend, anyone can go down to Cardiff Bay, pay nothing other than your travel costs and sit or hang over the bay railings and watch the races, the boats or just soak up the atmosphere.

So I decided to do just that.

J Morgan in front of the St Davids Hotel

Ben Ainslie’s JP Morgan BAR hurtling along

Friday morning at 10.30am sees me making my way from the station past the Millennium Centre and the Senedd to the pitched marquees by the bay where crews are already on board their boats and checking the kit. Holidaymakers are there, cameras clicking (or whatever they do nowadays) as the JP Morgan BAR cat (Ben Ainslie’s boat) comes hurtling towards them. See how quickly you pick up the lingo!  With one hull about 30 degrees out of the water the cat doesn’t seem to want to stop. With only about fifty yards before it would hit the the concrete walkway it veers away leaving camera buffs with some astonishing shots. Yes, the crews might not be racing yet but they are providing visitor entertainment.

Just as quickly, J P Morgan seems to be half way across the bay towards Penarth as a couple of other boats shudder to a stop so that powered boats, laden with spectators, can take close-up shots of crews and boats. And these crews are famous and experienced. Between them they have 27 Olympic Games’ campaigns, they’ve sailed in 58 America’s Cups and have 97 championships between them.

race pre-start

jockeying for position at the start – the Dr Who Experience is in the background

And here I am rubbing shoulders with them. As an ex hand on a wee sailing boat called a pelican a million years ago, or so it seems.  I learnt to sail. Heck, I even won a race once and got a couple of places although I am sure the skipper was responsible rather than me.  I dreamed of sailing VJ’s like my cousin or 16 foot skiffs. In comparison that was child’s stuff! This is proper sailing like those dozens of boats I used to watch every Boxing Day as they sailed in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race back in Australia. In Sydney, you couldn’t get closer than being on the water yourself or standing on North Head watching down below as, in the distance, the boats ace into view and bobbed through the heads on their journey south. Sydney Harbour actually sees the last race in the series in the second week of December.  In Cardiff, even without my specs, I can read the small print on the sails, I’m that close.

Oddly enough I met a lady whose husband sails on Wild Oats, one of the most successful Sydney Hobart winners ever. She had flown from Australia for this event as had others I met. There were a pretty cosmopolitan bunch with Dutch, Americans, Danes, South Africans, French and Omanis. They are a dedicated bunch, these sailors.

Groupama at the shoreline

Groupama nearly grounds through no fault of its own

Because Cardiff Bay is relatively narrow it means that wherever you perch to watch the race you can get a good vantage point and enjoy the fun. You can easily spot them these boats are large with their masts at least two storey’s high. Last year 120,000 watched the racing here and the chances are that everyone had good views and another 50,000 would still descend on the bay and everyone would still be able to see.

Because there are lots of boats in a small area, there can be near misses, capsizes and there may be knocks and even full-on crashes. I saw one cat, Groupama, almost grounded as it was forced inshore to avoid colliding with another boat.  It proved – in which language sailors speak, that their language can be salty! You might not have been able to make out the words but you could understand the annoyance.

Some of the eleven are out there practising already. There is a good breeze blowing and it is forecast to last the weekend although Monday may be a bit of a washout as typical bank holiday wet weather is forecast.  As if to prove my point one of the boats, SAP, raises one hull out of the water and targets a shore based tent veering away at the last minute and settling back in the water on its twin hulls. The wind should provide some fast times and some excitement for the spectators and visitors.

 

Alinghi, the leading boat

Alinghi – the race series leader skippered by Morgan Larson

Alinghi leads the race series overall having won three of the preceding four acts but then the boat has quite a pedigree having won the America’s Cup twice and it won two races in Cardiff on Friday. It also has a female tactician, Anna Tunnicliffe who just happens to be an Olympic gold winner.  Another champion, Sarah Ayton, is the tactician on The Wave which has won back to back championships in the last two years. Extreme sailing seems to have no male/female divisions; each team just wants the best.

In each venue there will be about 8 races per afternoon. Already this year there have been 112 and this is only the mid-way point. Anyone going to Cardiff can see another 24 over the remaining three days.

Most of the boats, whilst attached to countries, have multi-national crews. Take Oman Air for example, the boat not the airline which one the first race of the day on Friday. Its crew is made up of two Aussies, two Brits and two Omanis. Captained by Rob Greenghalgh who won the first ever Extreme series back in 2007, he holds the record for the fastest 24 Fastnet race and has held 21 championship titles as well.  Another of the crew, Kyle Langford comes from Lake Macquarie in Australia which is where I learnt to sail. The area obviously breeds the best!

four yachts at he start

Oman Air, The Watch, SAP and Groupama

But why is an airline supporting a yachting race series? After all it was the plane that ended a lot of ocean travel in those romantic days when sailing was the only way to get from one continent to another. The answer is that Oman Air is publicising itself – naturally – but also its country because Oman has become the Gulf destination for sailing. Five years ago, competitive sailing was almost unknown in Oman. Now its February regatta is the largest in the Middle East and it is one of the eight destinations that hosts the Extreme Sailing series.

The other attraction of this type of sailing is that unless it gets very rough – as it did in the eighth race of the day on Friday, each cat can take one guest on board.

Ben and Roman

Ben Ainslie and Roman Hagara

There you lie in the middle of the netting and under the boom whilst the team races. You could genuinely return home and say that you raced with Sir Ben Ainslie. What other sport would allow you to do that? Yes you do have to be invited so not everyone can be so lucky. But if everyone could do it, it wouldn’t seem special would it?

But if you’re tempted to come down, bring some clothing layers. In the sun it is hot; in the wind and in the early evening an anorak is needed. And an anorak is what I might have just become!

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