Welcome to extreme sailing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am

Nick Maloney knows a few things about thrill seeking. So when he talks, it pays to listen.

As a sailor at least, the Australian 41-year-old has pretty much seen and done it all, from crewing in the America's Cup to circumnavigating the globe three times.

Oh, and it's worth mentioning that when he got bored with the big boats, Maloney decided take a little trip across the notoriously dangerous stretch of water known Down Under as Bass Strait. Alone. And he was on a windsurfer.

But even Maloney admits that in recent years he had started running out of options. The thrill, it seems, had gone.

'I'd been pretty much sailing non-stop for 23 years,'' Maloney says. 'I'd done pretty much everything and I was even thinking about giving it up.'

Here Maloney pauses for dramatic effect.

'Until,' he almost whispers, 'these boats came along.'

Welcome to the world of the Extreme Sailing Series, which has been holding its Asian leg over the past few days in the choppy waters of Victoria Harbour.

The six 40-foot catamarans have been almost impossible to miss as they virtually fly across the water, topping out at more than 60km/h, and almost at times toppling over as they bank to often ridiculous angles.

That - in reality - there is little chance of them capsizing is down to the talent on board. Each boat's four-man crew boasts a collection of some of the biggest names in Olympic and international sailing, among them double gold medal winners Shirley Robertson, Roman Hagara and Peter Steinacher.

The series is the brainchild of OC Events, who in 2005 took the fastest boasts they could find at the Olympics, and made them much bigger and much, much faster.

This is the first time they have come to Asia, and after Hong Kong - where the crews will also tackle today's Around the Island Race - the series takes in legs in Singapore and Oman.

What also makes these catamarans - and the series itself - unique in terms of truly elite sporting pursuits is that there is room on board for a fifth man (or woman) to come along for the ride, during the actual races.

And that's why a bunch of us are gathered at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, listening to Maloney and his cohorts explain what attracted them to the sport.

None of the non-sailors among us is really admitting to having second thoughts, but the tap, tap, tapping of pens on notebooks, and a few bouncing, twitching legs around the room tell a different story.

Our supervisor has flashed a smile and, by way of explanation, told us to picture a Mini Cooper being dragged along by a tennis-court-sized sail, just so we know how much power potential these boats command. And in the welcoming brochure, Robertson says the experience ahead will be like 'riding shotgun with Jenson Button'.

But it's not until we are all safety suited up and wobbling onto our host catamarans like so many nervous penguins that we know what we are really in for. It takes a high-powered speedboat to bring us alongside, and even on a test run it takes what seems only a matter of seconds to go from Wan Chai to North Point and then, suddenly, we are right near Kai Tak.

But the serious stuff begins with the first race. The next quarter of an hour is a thrilling, frightening blur, mostly spent in a state of utter confusion, trying desperately to keep out of everyone's way, as they dart back and forth across the boat, across ropes and under the swinging beam.

That we are in fact following a race plan and, apparently, know where we are headed makes the whole exercise even more astonishing.

The crew of the China Team boat have patiently dismissed my stumblings and I have managed to stay out of the way - mostly - until a rather savage shift in direction sees me block skipper Hugh Styles's path for a split second, and I'm left stranded under the sail, not knowing which way to move. 'Would someone grab the ****ing traveller!' Styles screams, and for a frightening moment I fear the worst. Can you be keelhauled from a catamaran?

But the 'traveller' in question has something to do with the mainsail, apparently, not me, and we go on to the finishing mark.

A few minutes later and on the safety of dry land, you're left thankful for the thrills - and in total awe of the professionals.