Testing the waters to the Extreme
On the first day of the Extreme 40 sailing series in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, a winch exploded out of the deck and sailed through the air like a flying saucer after a collision en route to the start line.
Bits of carbon fibre - the hi-tech material from which the Extremes are constructed - were offered up to the sea like Dragon Boat Festival buns.
Shirley Robertson, a double Olympic sailing gold medallist at Sydney, in 2000, and Athens, in 2004 and the skipper/helm on Rumbo Almeria, took it in her stride. As happens in the world of Extreme sailing, the boat was repaired and was raced the next day.
'I have fear in my belly as I leave the dock some days,' says Robertson, who was in the right on starboard tack. 'There are not a lot of escape valves on an Extreme and there's no brakes.
'Sometimes you can feel the boat take off and it's as though the speed will launch you overboard off the back. In big breezes, down-wind these boats can pitch-pole, [the nautical version of a forward somersault].'
The Extremes are known for spectacular capsizes. The thought of being flung through the air when the rudder is out of the water, rendering the vessel out of control, does not deter Robertson from joining the most revolutionary circuit to happen in sailing for years.
A gap was seen in the grand-prix sailing market for fast, inshore catamarans, and the series has taken off in iconic cities such as Venice and London. With less than three months' notice, Hong Kong played host this month to six boats in the inaugural Extreme Sailing Series Asia.
'These are not boats, these are weapons,' says John McKenna, commercial director for the OC Group, which developed the series. 'They're manned by sailing's elite, who are out there to win. Collisions are not par for the course in most sailing classes, but they are in the Extremes.
'In Amsterdam, we had a hole [in a boat] so big a man could walk into it. We loaded it with buoys to prevent it from sinking, and tied the mast to the top of a building to prevent capsizing.'
Yet the next day the boat was racing, with booms and hulls flying across the heads of the huge throng of spectators lining Amsterdam's waterfront. The boats are so close to the shore people literally step back when an Extreme charges head-on at them doing up to 40 knots (75km/h), then, at the last nanosecond, turns away.
About 70,000 spectators lined the foreshores in Kiel, Germany, and Almeria, Spain, the last port before Hong Kong. The Extremes are likened to Formula One racing cars for their speed, but also because of the inevitability of collision. The high-octane turn-around for repairs is critical to their success.
The Extremes have taken sailing to a new level of entertainment. Like winch handles, deck hardware and carbon fibre, the rule book on what competitive sailing should be about has been flung to the four winds and the seven seas.
'This is a unique experience for the corporates, and the free race villages make sailing accessible to the general public,' says Roman Hagara of the Red Bull Extreme team. 'The point of the Extremes is to bring the sailing to the shore, rather than getting people offshore on the boats to watch, as is traditionally the case.'
In Hong Kong last week, achieving the usual massive shore crowd was not the raison d'etre. 'That's our plan for next year. We just focused on getting corporates and media out and testing the waters here,' OC Group chief executive Mark Turner says.
Part of what also makes the Extremes unique is the 'fifth man'. In each of the short eight races a day, the boats will carry a guest, who often has no sailing experience.
'It was like being in the middle of a scrum,' one corporate guest reported. 'No other corporate sporting event has offered me the chance to be in the middle of the action versus being a mere spectator. You can influence if the boat wins or looses. The Extremes leaves every other corporate sporting event in their wake.'
The event also served as a foretaste of what's to come next November with the Louis Vuitton Trophy, featuring America's Cup boats - also racing in the harbour. As with the Louis Vuitton Trophy, the race village is critical to the success of the Extremes. Frenchman Thierry Barot is qualified to weigh up the benefits of both events for Hong Kong, having sailed in the America's Cup for China and France and skippered the China Team last week.
'We were pleased with third place in this series,' the long-term Hong Kong resident says. 'The Extremes and LV are equally great news for everyone in this city, not just for sailors.
'Going through Lei Yue Mun Gap for the Round the Island Race last Sunday was unbelievable in this narrow part of the harbour. We were two or three times faster than everyone, cheered by crews on other yachts.'
The Extremes have made grandstands of harbour foreshores around the world, but will this happen with the Louis Vuitton Trophy next November?
'The harbour-front will be the place to be during the LV,' Barot says. 'The Extremes are faster and more entertaining for spectators, but Louis Vuitton has the prestige of the brand and I think will attract more overseas visitors.'
For the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, the event was a trial run for the Louis Vuitton Trophy as it seeks to further enhance the city and harbour as a sailing centre. 'As Hong Kong becomes a sailing hub, the club has a role in the success of events,' commodore Warwick Downes says. 'As we will do for the LV, we provided on-water race management. Normally Extreme crews bring their own village; this time they used the club for this purpose.'
Robertson has no doubts that he LV will prove a tremendous hit in Hong Kong.
'The Royal Hong Kong Yacht club is the friendliest club in the world and will be excellent hosts,' says Robertson, who commentates for CNN and covered the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series in Auckland in February.
'In Auckland, the whole city got into it. People lined every shore. Even if you're not a sailor, the LV will be very good for Hong Kong and the race village will make the sport accessible.
'Everyone around the world will be transfixed by images of the spectacular harbour backdrop, as were sailors and television audiences for the inaugural Extreme Sailing Series Asia.'
Barot adds: 'Whichever event you prefer, sailing is a knowledge sport. When the America's Cup was held in Auckland [in 2003], the average age of the crews was 41. In Valencia, this year, it was 47.'
Defying those statistics, on board the winning Extreme, Oman Sail Masirah - skippered by British sailing legend Pete Cumming - was a 26-year-old former Olympic swimmer, Nasser Al Mashari. He was recruited in Oman via an advertisement in a newspaper and put through intensive training.
'Hundreds of years ago we used to have a sailing heritage, but when I grew up there was no racing,' Mashari said. 'Now our Sultan has programmes in schools and is bringing in coaches from the UK. We're building marinas and hosting the Extremes. Hopefully, we will be back in Hong Kong to win again next year.'
The Extreme Sailing Series Asia finishes with the final leg in Muscat, Oman, in February.
Next time Hong Kong hosts the event, it be on a much grander scale. When the Extremes return they will bring an entire race village, even down to the kitchen, complete with sink, and an entourage of about 70.
New sailing event takes to the seas
1 The boats cost HK$4.4 million and a team must come up with HK$2.9 million every season
2 The boats were designed in 2005 and the first series was held in Europe in 2007
3 The mainsail area covers 75 sq metres - the same size as a tennis court
4 These 'weapons' weigh the same as a Mini Cooper - 1.25 tonnes
5 The boats' can reach top speeds of 40 knots. They hit 28 knots in Hong Kong last Sunday