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Sun 24 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Onboard with Aqua

In a world that is commercialising all amateur contests, ploughing the commercialised sentiments of sponsorship and win-at-all-costs mentality into even the most ‘gentlemanly' of sports, sailing, the RC44 World Championship steps out as a breath of fresh air.

In a world that is commercialising all amateur contests, ploughing the commercialised sentiments of sponsorship and win-at-all-costs mentality into even the most ‘gentlemanly' of sports, sailing, the RC44 World Championship steps out as a breath of fresh air.

While the America's Cup is broaching off course with too many cooks bringing their own personal interests to the table, the Russell Coutts-devised one-design RC44 circuit is steadily growing into what the America's Cup was in its heyday - an elite competition of wealthy owners racing state-of-the-art carbon match racing machines at an incredible level, but not for increased wealth - merely for sport.

We turn up early at the events to work on our weaknesses.

Don't believe me? Take a conversation overheard by a visiting journalist on the back of Team Omega during one fleet race in Dubai.

Coming into a tight situation on starboard, Team Omega had to duck a port-tack boat to avoid a collision and Russell Coutts was asked whether to protest by the helm. The answer (minus expletives) was a negative.

"We'll get them on the next tack and they'll owe us one" are being the logic behind it, the sportsman ethic from one of the most cutthroat sailors in the world.

The RC44 World Championship roadshow arriving in Dubai for the final competition, the Dubai Gold Cup, was a highlight for the local Team Aqua, the only RC44 actually built in Dubai by the ex-V1-Tech that had originally won a distribution contract.

Owned and self-financed by DOSC member Chris Bake, Team Aqua has consistently proved itself as the hot contender in the seven European venues of the 2007 circuit, leaving just a good result needed during the Dubai Gold Cup to clinch the overall championship.

Leading the likes of infamous names including Russell Coutts, Dean Barker, Sebastian Col and James Spithill, Chris Bake's crew of Cameron Appleton, Jeff Brock, Matt Cassidy, Andrew Estcourt, Josh Wilson, Kevin Kelble, Scott Kennedy and Dubai-bred Ben Graham have proved that good teamwork, consistent training and crew management can break any high-profile name.

Invited along for the final day of racing onboard Team Aqua in the normally calm waters off Dubai Marina, all the teams had been battling with the fallout of the fantastic kiteboarding shamal that came at the beginning of December.

Having braved conditions on lakes and various Atlantic and Mediterranean venues throughout the year, it was the calm Arabian Gulf that provided the most challenging sea conditions, sharp rollers pitting boat handling skill well up with the usual high-level of tactics as many boats hit their PB speeds surfing downwind.

While Dubai might have been a strange finale regatta for a European-based competition, the enthusiasm of the owners to get their teams out here, with some boats staying here to compete in the Maktoum Sailing Trophy, the consistent weather, ease of logistics and hospitality of DIMC made it an excellent end of season battlefield.

Laid out in a pit lane position either side of a pontoon familiar with all the major competitions down at DIMC, be it Class 1 or the Maktoum Sailing Trophy, toned sailors made pre-race preparations in the warm morning sun.

WHAT IS THE RC44 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP?Held in eight venues, the RC 44 Class regattas are a combination of fleet racing (in which the owner of the boat must drive) and match racing (no helmsman limitation), with two rankings and one overall result.

Other attractive features such as direct umpiring for the fleet races, leeward gates during the match racing series, very short starting lines and short courses enhance the level of the competition and provide a great show.

All the team managers have selected top level crews whilst respecting the Class Rules who restricts the number of professional sailors to four per boat.

This rule leads to a combination of skilled amateur sailors, America's Cup and Olympic sailors.

Some washed their hulls, others double checked repairs and the more confident threw a rugby ball around.

Team colours flew from the forestays and by each boat on the pontoon a box held all the kit that was taken off before each race, including a vacuum cleaner for getting any unwanted grime away.

Getting the whole international team together incurs such a logistic and financial headache that few teams practice in between regattas, though team Aqua prides itself on doing more than most: "We turn up early at the events to work on our weaknesses," explained Cameron.

"We have been sailing together for the whole year and by doing all the events we have managed to figure out the little techniques which don't necessarily win you races but give you the cross when you need it."

"Clean hoists, gybes and droppings anyway needed to round the favored mark no matter which way you come at it."

While certainly a mellow and relaxed atmosphere, with teams swapping stories and advice, the instant the race postponement flag was dropped on the DIMC race tower, an instant transformation occurred, with crew members appearing out of the woodwork, almost immediately kited out in team shirts and the ubiquitous wraparound shades.

From the on course call to teams leaving the dockside cannot have been more than four minutes - hinting the earlier relaxed atmosphere was simply demonstrating a complete sense of readiness.

While the crew took on last-minute energy drinks, suncream and snacks for energy, Chris ‘held court' in the centre of the cockpit, though I wasn't sure if it was a pep talk or he was sharing a story of post-race shenanigans.

Closing on the starting box, the engine was cut and both sails sped up their tracks as the grinders paired up on the Harken pedestal.

Having seen the RC44s sail close up, on the web and in pictures, it was amazing to observe the simplicity in which Cameron ran the boat to keep the whole crew maximising her performance.

With little sea and a light onshore breeze, all I have been told about the accelerating performance of the RC44 came clear.

"The tab plays a big part on these boats and is great for accelerating out of tacks off the start line. We have found that in breeze you can often over do the tab and unload the helm too much," explained Cameron.

"I don't think there is a target angle to look for; you have to use your feeling as the conditions and tactical situations change. It is important to trust the gauges."

Certainly he was having to trust his feeling more than usual today without any wind instruments to aid his tactics as Chris took the helm for the first of two fleet races.

Despite racing at little over seven tons all-in, the RC44 had a soft motion over the sharp Gulf waves, the bow rising smoothly without any jerkiness you might expect from a carbon match racer.

BEN GRAHAM, GRINDER ON TEAM AQUA, EXPLAINS TEAM AQUA'S SECRET FORMULA

The RC44 is a very technical boat to sail in terms of trim and finding the right slots.

One of Team Aqua's greatest strengths has been in our crew work, ensuring we get from one slot to the next in best possible time, while keeping good speed through the water.

Conditions here are perfect, the boats power up so quickly it becomes very tactical.

But don't get me wrong, they are amazing to sail, and the racing couldn't be closer - we lost our wind instruments on the start line as we heeled and the boat next to us didn't - that was close!

While undeniably styled with an America's Cup Class flavour, the design also followed many basic principles, such as the central grinder pedestal, the main fed through the boom and back around behind the bulwark, and the asymmetric chute being fed and retrieved through a pipe in the hull.

While all the yachts had this technologically-advanced and ergonomically-simple cockpit layout, it was only Team Aqua that hit the startline with a DOSC sticker on her main.

Though match races may be the more active, there is nothing like lining up on the short startline with less than a metre separating competitors on either side as we slow down and sit, almost like a dinghy class, the acceleration coming seconds before the starting gun as all eight teams quickly hit the clean wind ahead of the line.

Unlike many IRC races, the RC44 fleet races are certainly no processions, with many gains and losses made on each angle. "Typically in these boats you gain the most down wind."

"Upwind in lighter airs you can have big differences, but you always look for gaining or extending on the runs," explained Cameron.

"The RC 44 is a lightweight high performance boat that carries big asymmetric spinnakers, which combined with the hull shape produce a fast easily driven boat, also our crew is lighter than most teams, so we change gears earlier."

Certainly witnessing a gybe is the most frantic of the manoeuvres aboard, with both grinders going hell for leather to get the sail around the forestay before it can fill on the leeward side.

All too soon two races were completed and my free ride over.

I'd seen bow-down starts, amazing acceleration, the bowman hoisted up the mast to free a caught spinnaker and an on-the-water kite repair, as well as an amazing display of teamwork, mutual respect and constant feedback between positions.

But not only was this experienced on an individual boat level, Race Officer Brian Hooper also commended the professionalism of the teams: "The quality of sailors out on the water was amazing," he said after the final race.

"The helms they had were easily within the top 20 in the world and the fact they came here is amazing. But the best part was they came here to have fun. Despite the costs and reputations involved, all teams had a great laissez-faire attitude that meant they didn't go to get their results at all costs; they sailed in a dynamic but non-aggressive manner."

At the end of season prizegiving in the evening, Saeed Hareb and Sid Bensalah awarded Russell Coutts' Team Omega with the Dubai Gold Cup, but it was Team Omega that left with the Golden Wheel trophy and full-scale model of a complete RC44 for winning the overall World Championship.

While he thanked his wife Cynthia on stage, she explained the secret of his success: "Chris took his hobby and made it his quest. Originally goaded on by Russell to compete, Chris has made his whole team an extension of his family, and we love the guys. What he's done has been fantastic for us all."

WHAT ABOUT COSTS?According David McHugh, a regular trimmer on Team Omega and experienced floater between boats being employed to help them go fast and encourage new team sales, the success of this first season has been down to the owner-driven make-up.

"It is the owners that discuss what changes and alterations to make to the boats, rules and circuits. As such we have had a few simple upgrades since the first model. Usually, we trial a potential upgrade on one boat and then see what the skipper and owner think before implementing it.

Euro-for-euro there isn't a more thrilling pro-am circuit to be involved in anywhere in the world. For instance, you can pick up an RC44 for 395,000 euros, and have a complete team, equipment and sail wardrobe for under 460,000 euros all in.

Then expect between 300 and 400k per year and you get a well organised, highly professional and amazing series for less than a second-hand, bare-polled TP52.

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