Tuesday, March 8, 2011

RC 44 Oracle Cup Re-Cap

Sharon Green Photo
Words can't adequately express the experience I had steering Team Aqua in the RC 44 Oracle Cup held in San Diego this past weekend.  For me, it was initially overwhelming...perhaps like starting in the front row of the Daytona 500 after spending most of your driving career on the interstate highway.  Eventually.... the "deer in the head-lights" look was slapped off my face and I began to embrace the challenge and even reveled in it.  

Imagine weaving your way through the fleet of these 11, $700,000 carbon fiber thoroughbreds in pre-start maneuvering at 9 knots?  Weaving in out of piers with hundreds of spectators cheering with play-by-play coverage of your every move going out over the loud-speakers in the back-ground, all the while trying to avoid the hundreds of spectator boats and trying to set the boat up for a full speed start on a starting line that is only about 50 yards from shore. 

All of this with about 30 minutes of practice under my belt....and after having never steered a boat much bigger than a J-80 in a race....much less a boat with a steering wheel rather than a familiar tiller!  It was complete sensory overload!  To say that I was a bit "puckered up" was an understatement.

As I mentioned in my last post, this opportunity was offered to me by my good friend Chris Bake who was unable to attend the regatta at the last minute due to business commitments.  Chris has gone on from our college days at the University of Texas to become a Managing Director of Vitol, a very successful energy trading company with operations all over the globe.  No one is quite sure how Chris manages all of the things he does in his life and yet he still maintains an incredibly kind and calm demeanor.  

Chris' Team Aqua was one of the first boats in the RC 44 class and they have had a very successful run over the past 3 years and have been instrumental in helping the RC 44 class take off and grow.  When he asked me to step in steer his boat in this event, it was too great an opportunity for me to pass.  After I said yes, the reality quickly began to set in as to what my lack of experience sailing a boat like this could result in.  I started having visions of making a mistake of epic proportions that could not only cost Team Aqua on the race course but also affect Chris' bank account!  Can you imagine me t-boning Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts at 10 knots in front of a 1,000 spectators?  My knees were beginning to knock!

Thankfully, I was aboard Team Aqua with an absolutely incredible team.  Cameron Appleton, originally from New Zealand is the tactician and runs the show.  He  has assembled a team of professionals that I truly believe were the best team on the race course.  These guys range in age from their early 20's to mid 30's and they take what they do very seriously and are all very focused.

Andy Estcourt, also originally from New Zealand is the main sail trimmer and he is the "speed guy" upwind.  He constantly was making adjustments to trim, rig-setup and the trim tab to keep the boat at the proper heel angle and speed.  He coaxed me through the steering adjustments I had to make to keep the boat at the proper upwind speed and also at the correct heel angle which I came to learn was very important in these boats.

Christian Kamp is the upwind jib trimmer and flies the chute downwind.  Christian is originally from Denmark and is new to the team this year.  He was absolutely amazing at relaying to me the amount of pressure and downwind angle we could sail with the chute up.  

Ben Graham of Dubai is the grinder and strength guy; Jimmy Maloney, the youngest guy on the boat and new this year, also hails from New Zealand and focused on the running backs, halyards, etc.  Chris Noble, of Scotland, affectionately nick-named "Wallace" ...as in William, did a bit of everything.  In fact, I was so locked in on my sole task that I never really saw what he did. Cameron quipped that the fact that I didn't hear his name mentioned often meant that he was doing a good job.

Finally, Matt "Matty" Cassidy ran the bow and made getting the chute up and down and changing the jibs look effortless.  He also was really good at calling the line at the start and calling puffs upwind.  Matty grew up in San Diego and his local knowledge was invaluable.  

Brett Jones, originally from Australia and now a sail designer for Quantum in Florida is the team coach and was not only great at this task but is as nice a guy as you will meet.  Karl Funk of Seattle is the team "boat" guy who made sure the boat was operating properly at all times.  

Rounding out the team is Cameron's father, John Appleton who coordinated on-shore logistics and managed to sail as the "9th man" with us in several races.  John and Brett were kind enough to get my wife Amy out on the water with them in the team tender and made us both feel very welcome and comfortable. 

The first day was just crazy for me.  I wasn't sure how quickly to turn the boat, what angle to hit after a tack for speed build, what angle to bear off to while setting the spinnaker, how to bear off and duck a boat at high speed, etc.  Fortunately, the the team was patient with me and helped me learn on the job.  We struggled a bit on the first day but still came out of the day in 4th overall and that was after being over early one start and me hitting the windward mark in another race.  

America's Cup winners Larry Ellison with Russell Coutts calling tactics had the best first day and were atop the standings followed by Artemis Racing with Morgan Larson calling tactics.  I honestly could not tell you anything else about the racing that day.  I was so hyper-focused on what my job was and that was all I could handle.   

On the second day, things began to slow down for me just a bit and everything started to make a bit more sense.  We managed a 1-4-1-2 on day two and now were up to 2nd overall, only 2 points behind Katusha with Bob Little steering and Paul Cayard calling the shots.  

I had now learned that all I really had to do was make sure we got the boat loaded up after a tack, up to the proper angle of heel and target the speed in the low 8 knot range upwind.

Downwind was very interesting to me.  This was the first time that I had ever sailed a boat with a heel indicator on the instrument display.  My goal here was to keep the boat at or near an 8 degree heel angle at all times and to listen to Christian coach me on the amount of pressure he had on the spinnaker and whether we need to sail a higher or lower course to optimize our VMG.  By the end of the regatta, I felt like we were the best boat downwind with not only our speed but especially our boat handling.  

Jibing these boat properly was another challenge.  I had to really focus on letting the boat turn down very slowly and then pause for a moment straight downwind for optimum VMG and then as the chute began to fill on the new jibe and the main started to come across, I had to bring the boat to the optimum angle to exit the jibe with maximum power until we got to the proper speed and heel again.  Big gains could be made on the competition  if the jibes were executed properly.  

The third day was more of the same.  Gradually, I was getting a better feel for things and my confidence was improving.  We made an incredible rally on the last downwind leg of the first race to snatch a 6th after rounding the last windward mark around 10th.  We followed that up with a 1-3 to again win "boat of the day"  honors and still hovering only 2 points behind Katusha going into the final day. 

The final day was overcast with the wind very puffy and shifty.  Just before the start, the wind seemed to be increasing so we elected to go to our # 2 jib.  The team did an excellent job changing our jib in a very short time frame and we were the only team that was able to make the change.  We got a good start and were looking very solid.

After our first tack to port, we were closing quickly with Oracle on starboard.  Cameron was worried that another tack back with the small sail up and with the wind dying would leave us pinned so we elected to go for the cross.  

Unfortunately, we were a few feet shy of making it and the umpires ruled that we fouled.  We immediately did our 270 degree penalty turn and found ourselves back in the pack but with still a chance to be in the mix.  We did a good job upwind with our small sail, even as the wind continued to die.  On the downwind leg, we made a fairly early jibe to port and managed to get right back in the race as we approached the leeward gate. 

We decided to go around the left gate thinking that we would just cross the starboard tack Russian boat "Synergy".  At the last moment it was clear we would not cross so we bore off to give them room to round.  Inexplicably, we were called for another foul even though the Russian boat never had to alter course and had plenty of room to round.  We quickly did another penalty turn and were now last.  After rounding the last windward mark in 10th, we sailed a great last downwind leg and passed 4 boats to finish 7th and keep ourselves in the hunt.  

The next race was very light and puffy with big shifts.  We again got ourselves back in the race downwind after an average start and first beat and were now in 3rd just ahead of Oracle.  We had not given up on catching Katusha in the overall standings so we took some risks on the last downwind leg that did not work out for us and allowed Oracle to pass us along with another boat.  

Going into the last race, Katusha had a comfortable lead with us just behind Oracle and just ahead of Artemis.  We had a very average start and got forced out of phase and didn't have a great first beat but again, on the downwind leg, we jumped several boats.  We held our own on the next windward leg and on the last downwind leg we passed another boat or two and just barely missed passing the Spanish team which would have given us the spacers necessary to pass Oracle in the standing to take 2nd. It wasn't to be however and we had to settle for a hard fought 3rd place.

Overall, I think we had a great result considering my inexperience.   I am pretty sure all the guys share my disappointment in that I really thought at the end we had a great chance to win.  I can't even to begin to express my thanks to all of the great folks in San Diego that were so hospitable to Amy and I and to the RC 44 Class and to Team Aqua for giving me the thrill of a life-time.  

Here is a link to the RC 44 Oracle Cup.  There are great photos and videos posted there.


Thanks again to Chris and Team Aqua for making my RC 44 experience unforgettable!  I can't wait for my next chance to race one of these boats again! 


  1. Thank you very much for bringing this interesting and well written report about a "dream event" to your fellow readers. You seem to do all the things I like to do as well. Just recently I have focused more on racing the Foiler Moth other than sailing my other boats and windsurfing.
    Smooth sailing!

  2. Scott amazing story and told so well. I can hear you saying it as I read it. Thanks!

  3. loved your description here, one day I hope to do something like this , keep on sailing!

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