For Races on the Water, These Yachts Have Pit Crews

by Pelican Press
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It takes a small army, not a navy, to keep Maxi yachts performing, race after race. More precisely, it takes an army corps of engineers.

The team behind the American yacht Bella Mente intends to start the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, which begins on Monday, with two carbon-specialist boat builders standing by. Each is capable of repairing major damage. One is a full-time employee; the other is recruited for practice and for the races at the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda in Porto Cervo, Sardinia.

For shore support, add a sailmaker. Add a hydraulics expert. Add multiple “utilitarian guys who can do anything,” as described by the project manager and team director, Rob Ouellette.

Add a driver for the sizable and fast chase boat that will accompany the yacht around the course each day. Add a coach who will ride along to video maneuvers for review in the daily debrief, while also keeping an eye out for insights into how other boats are performing. Also riding along: a repair kit, engine spares, first aid, oxygen and a defibrillator.

Ashore there is a chef, and there are chef’s helpers. They will work long hours in the rented crew houses. Between sailors and the shore team, there are 30 mouths to feed three times a day, Ouellette said: “We go through a lot of calories.” He might have mentioned that the average size of a person on a Maxi crew is big, very big.

Include also the sailing crew themselves. Each brings expertise. Sail trimmers will consult the sailmaker after each race day regarding adjustments or repairs. The 10 grinders, who spin winch handles at the behest of the trimmers, will break the winches apart after races and inspect and repair the gears, Ouellette said: “The grinders ‘own’ everything mechanical.

“The shore crew has long days, but there is so much to go through, they would never get it done on their own,” he said. “There is no line where responsibility ends or begins. Anything you trashed today is yours to make ready for tomorrow.”

Even if it takes working until tomorrow. The ethic is no different from what you find in the pit crews of high-end auto racing, but more members of a sailing team get time on the course.

Bella Mente, 74 feet, is the fourth boat of that name for the businessman Hap Fauth, who is also a principal backer of the New York Yacht Club’s challenge for the America’s Cup, American Magic.

About leading the team to Porto Cervo, Ouellette said, “It’s a lovely place to sail, but there are not a lot of services. We will have three 40-foot containers, and with them all the resources to do anything we need. One container is for sail repair and sail storage. One is a composites shop, and one is a machine shop. You need that to race at this level.”

Vesper, last year’s winner of the Mini Maxi division, travels with two 40-foot containers. According to the project manager Ken Keefe, one container is devoted to sail storage and repair, with two heavy-duty sewing machines, and is occupied by a dedicated sailmaker.

That role supplements the sailmakers who participate in races.

“Our other container has a full mechanical workshop, including a lathe, drill press and a stock of spares for the parts most likely to fail,” Keefe said. “Most of the guys who sail on the boat can also work on the boat, but we bring in a hydraulics engineer to manage a winch system that is complicated — no more than it needs to be — but not robust. It needs constant attention and upgrading.”

Vesper will skip this regatta in favor of Caribbean races, but the many returning boats include Proteus in the Mini Maxi group. The man in charge of Proteus, Reggie Cole, described the program as being “as lean as they come in our fleet.” That translates to relying heavily on the sailing crew for maintenance, while bringing only two of the team’s three containers.

Proteus will have one boat builder standing by to repair, for example, a hole in the carbon hull in event of that collision that everyone fears.

“He’ll work through the night if need be,” Cole said, backed, of course, by members of the sail team. Cole added that the chase-boat driver does more than follow the races. The driver performs a critical role between races. With Proteus moored in the harbor and the containers on a pier, there is continual shuttling back and forth.

In the same Mini Maxi group, Sir Peter Ogden skins the cat differently by keeping things tight with his Jethou team and man for all seasons Stuart Branson, who said he had been with Sir Peter for 22 years. Branson manages logistics, arranges flights and hires the chefs.

Branson said his sailing crew was “self-sufficient.” “We come with two containers equipped with tools and parts and carbon resin,” he said. “Sail repair is us. We’re a tight group of 16, and we can fix just about anything.”

One might expect to find the biggest shore teams working for the biggest boats, the classic and classic-replica giants of the J Class. However, they are more like the tight Jethou squad.

Peter Holmberg, an Olympic silver medalist and the helmsman for the 140-foot Topaz, said that while Js have their container villages, “The permanent crew is essentially the shore team. There will be a captain, first mate, bosun, chef and stew working on the boat year-round and contracting outside work as needed. Once racing starts, the entire crew of sailors becomes the shore team because they are, in their full-time professions, riggers, sailmakers, carbonologists. They are there to exercise all their skills before the race, in the race and after. Whatever it takes.”

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