Last week I got the opportunity to witness the Red Bull Extreme Sailing Team first hand, as they battled it out in the Sydney Harbour. In the final Act of the Extreme Sailing Series, the Red Bull team were attempting to steal the title in a last minute dash.
Originally, I was meant to be on-board during one of the six races that took place on the final day of the 8thth Act. Unfortunately, though, due to strong winds, guests were no longer allowed on board. However, I was allowed to accompany the support boat that shadowed the Red Bull team throughout the day.
Watching the fleet race from such a close proximity gave me not only a unique insight into what the sailors do, but also a new found respect for the sport of extreme sailing. The way the boats zipped past each other, sometimes in completely opposite directions, left me wondering how the hell these things didn’t tear through each other on a consistent basis. Although I did not witness any major collisions on the day, I was assured they were not exactly rare. In all honesty it made me question the morals of the race referees, and exactly why the courses were set up in a way which resulted in these near collisions happening so frequently. Although it did make for spectacular viewing.
The noise was another thing which I was not expecting: The crews have to yell at each other in order to communicate, and during the races their cries echoed out across the water. The noise of both the sails flapping violently as the boats changed direction and the men barking orders reminded me of a scene out of Pirates of the Caribbean.
However, it was the sheer speed of the boats which took me most by surprise. The GC32 is capable of reaching speeds of 39 knots. That is ridiculously fast to be moving on the water; or as the guys at the Extreme Sailing Series put it: “It’s is like putting your head out of the window in a car, when it is raining, at 83kmph.”
Watching the lightning fast GC32 catamarans moving at such speeds from such a close proximity was remarkable enough in itself. Watching this with the backdrop of the Sydney Harbour including Opera House and Bridge was something else altogether.
As we cruised up beside the ultra light 18 foot catamaran following their second race, I could make out the crew whom I had read up on in preparation for the day. Sitting at the back steering was skipper and helm Roman Hagara: The Austrian has achieved practically all there is to achieve in the sport. Roman came across as an old sea dog, and I mean this in the best possible way. He was squinting to shield his eyes from the sun and the spray of the ocean salt, and he winced as he grabbed at his back – most likely due to years of being tossed around by the ocean. I suspected he was one of those guys that seemed more comfortable on the water than on land.
Sitting on the port side was tactician Hans Peter Steinacher - he is no stranger to success either, or to the Sydney Harbour waters: He and Roman won gold at the Sydney Olympics back in 2000. Cross-legged, supported by the net like mesh of the boat and sipping his drink, was bowman Brad Farrand. If I hadn’t just witnessed the Kiwi race less than a minute before I would have thought, he was on holiday. Sitting near Brad was Adam Piggott, the British headsail trimmer and series veteran. Rounding out the crew and asking the support boat for a chocolate bar and a hat, was mainsail trimmer and New Zealand sailing prodigy Stewart Dodson.
After a quick drink, and a few words of advice from the support crew, Skipper Roman changed the direction of the sails ever so slightly and they glided back towards the start line.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be Red Bull’s day. After dominating Saturday's racing the team finished fourth on the Sunday - meaning they were unable to clinch the title. However they did claim third place in the overall rankings, their second podium finish in two years.
Despite the boys being visibly disappointed in letting the opportunity slip, their efforts and the experience had given me a new found respect for what sailors do. I have spent a lot of time around professional athletes, however the one’s that fascinate me are not the raw athletes such as swimmers, runners, or footballers. The athletes that really intrigue me are those that could be described as something else altogether. The hybrids; the part-scientists, part-athletes; those who are putting themselves through rigorous physical exertion whilst simultaneously doing complex calculations in their head. I was lucky enough to witness Red Bull’s Jamie Whincup earlier in the year, and the way the sailors operated in the ocean reminded me of Jamie’s skill and institution on the road. Due to this fascination, I was really interested in talking with one of the crew and seeing what made them tick and how they train and prepare for what they do. Luckily, I was able to have a chat with mainsail trimmer Stewart.
At just 23 years of age Stewart is one of the youngest sailors in the fleet, although he is far from out of place - in fact, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Kiwi had a bit of salt water running through his blood: The nephew of America’s cup sailors, Rick Dodson, Tom Dodson and James Dagg, Stewart began sailing when he was just eight years old. Despite taking a break from the sport during his teenage years, Stewart eventually returned, claiming numerous national titles and he also won the NZ Youth Match Racing Championships in 2012.
Speaking with Stewart following Sunday's racing, I could still hear a bit of disappointment in his voice when he spoke of what could have been. Apart from this though, Stewart seemed confident and far more level headed than you would expect a young sportsman to be. This was also visible when I was watching the crew from the support boat. Despite giving up almost three decades of experience to his skipper Roman, Stewart appeared very relaxed in the environment and on the big stage.
When questioned on his training Stewart explained that his typical day usually consists of a gym session in the morning followed by sailing in the afternoon.
“We get knocked around a fair bit so we do a lit of core work, and a lot of work on the trampoline because it’s not a steady surface (much like water).”
Following this gym session, the crew generally then sail in the afternoons for 4 - 5 hours at a time. It’s a big work load, but it has its benefits: Just this year the Extreme Sailing Series took the Red Bull team to Wales, Germany, the Madeira Islands and Lisbon in Portugal, Russia and of course Sydney for the final stop. When speaking of how much he enjoyed sailing in the Sydney Harbour, Stewart also mentioned the Mediterranean and the Middle East as some of his other favourite places to sail. Generally a person would have to rack up quite the credit card bill to see all those places by the time they were Stewart's age.
Stewart also said that he looks up to his older crew member Hans and Roman and hopes to replicate their success. Asked about his future aspirations, the answer he gave was not all that surprising for a sailor.
“Eventually the America’s Cup,” he said.
“That’s definitely the main one. And the Match Racing Tour next year.”
Stewart speaks of the World Match Racing Tour; he will be looking for back to back titles in 2017 after being apart of the winning team alongside Phil Robertson earlier this year. In winning the title the team took home a record prize money bonus of $1,000,000.
Not a bad pay day for someone who is only 24 next year.