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Straight bullets as Alan Roberts Navigates and calls tactics on board Maltese Falcon

A different kind of sailing ... or was it?

I had the pleasure and honour of being invited to race aboard the revolutionary sailing yacht Maltese Falcon in the Perini Navi Cup 2018 in the stunning race venue of Porto Cervo. The first thing you notice when you walk down the docks towards the boat is how clean and elegant the yacht is. With its freestanding Dynarig there is no rigging, ropes, sheets or blocks cluttering the deck.

Simple and elegant

With two days of training scheduled time was short to learn how this boat would handle, but luckily with the expertise from the Amsterdam based yacht designers Dykstra, -Thys/Thijs Nikkels and Jeroen de Vos and Portsmouth UK based rig designers Magma Structures -Damon Roberts- we had an experienced team working with the Falcon crew. Here, it is worth noting that the Falcon can be sailed by 1 person (helming and sail trim at the same time). We split the roles on board, so there was a helm, a sail trimmer, Nav & tactics & communications, final decision maker, someone watching the tracker and spotters on either side for wind and for other boats.

We spent our time during the training gathering data on the boat, sailing in a straight line on a variety of different wind angles, calibrating and correcting the wind units and boat speed in order to give us accurate and reliable information to aid navigation and also trim. This ensured the numbers we would see on screen during the race were interpreted as realistically as possible.

Another big area we worked on was the tack. With 3 rigs spaced along the length of the boat this presents quite the challenge for the trimmers and the helm. Knowing the optimal order to rotate the rigs, and the rate of turn of the helm is essential and this changes depending on what wind and wave conditions we have. You may ask, would it be more efficient to wear around (gybe instead of tack like the square riggers of old) well we thought about this and apparently it was tested in the past, the problem is you lose too much distance as the boat accelerates when you bear away. Once we had tried a few different variances of rate of turn and trim and analysed this on the computer software it then became a matter of fine tuning.

For reference;

A very good tack – boat speed drops to around 2knts +/- 0.5 knt rate of turn remains positive.

A good tack boat speed drops to 1-1.5 rate of turn positive but almost neutral at point of forward mast rotation.

An average tack is around 1knt the rate of rotation of the boat becomes neutral.

And a bad tack we go backwards normally rate of rotation of boat becomes negative.

Racing day 1 – perfect sailing, the Falcon Flies

With a stiff breeze from the north east we knew there were 2 key points for us on the race course where we could make some potential big losses, like any 3 master, the Falcon is not an upwind machine. We knew we could not point as high as the sloop and ketch rigged yachts and we also pay a penalty for tacking. Therefore, any leg where we require to tack and the other boats make the mark, is a heavy penalty to us.

We hit the start line at max speed and 10 seconds after our gun (less than half a boat length, an achievement by any boat) at the favoured end and in a position to give us the best opportunity to lay the first mark without a tack. Taking every lift we could and managing the sailing modes we manage to make the turning mark (rock) without a tack.

The ease of the Falcon to go downwind, gybing and trim is where she excels against other yachts thanks to her three masts configuration and powerful Dynarig. We trucked downhill, gybing inside and rolling around the bow of the other yachts that were ahead of us.

Our aim was to keep it simple, do the basics. Ensure we sailed as short a distance as possible, make nice mark rounding’s so we would always come out of the mark with a good trajectory and not slide sideways with a handbrake turn.

A key point for us was leg 3, we knew we had to do everything to make it through the gap between the rocks without tacking. If we could make this, the rest of the race was to our favour and we would extend on our opponents. We sailed a high mode trying to balance sailing high and not drop too much speed to avoid just slipping sideways. With the skill of the helmsman and trimmer they kept the boat moving throughout this demanding mode of sailing required of them to just pass the headland by 75m clearance. Then... we unleashed the falcon and she flew!

Day 1 was a mode sailing day and choosing racing lines, I believe we left maybe 30 seconds (two boat lengths) max on the race course against the perfect track! This was an amazing achievement.

Nice mark rounding’s wide in narrow out

Race 2 - 1st or last

A very different kettle of fish, with light winds and between 4 to 6 tacks predicted. We identified before the start the make or break of our day. A VMG upwind test through 300m straights in less than 6 knots forecast. The computer routings struggled to predict a route through the gap as it involved multiple tacks in succession. With our slow tacks and slow speed build (as you can imagine for a yacht of this weight over a thousand tonnes) we knew it was going to be near impossible to pass with the wind in the forecast direction.

With again a similar wind angle to day 1 for the first leg, we just laid the windward mark in last place. As we did so we had the advantage of being able to monitor the speeds and angles of all the other boats, this allowed us to pick a nice line to play the pressure across the race course and position ourselves for the predicted wind shift.

We made monumental gains down this run (another feature of the Falcon Dynarigs is that the sail is fully supported and therefore the sails don’t collapse under their own weight and they keep the aerodynamic flow attached). We could see all the other boats with jibs closing the slot and over trimmed main sails. Whereas we were able to keep the flow of air over the sails and rigs thanks to the bone structure of the masts.

Unusual boats and extreme conditions calls for special tactics and measures. With the tactical preference, in any small or sloop rig vessel, to stay south to be ready for the expected right hand shift we had to apply a different way of thinking. Our aim was to pass through the gap, where we knew we would have to put in double, triple and maybe quadruple tacks within the 3-boat length gap. I have sailed a lot of boats and this is a challenge in any boat even one that can accelerate quickly after the tack. I know I could never do this in my international 14 and I never tried it in my Figaro. So to say I was nervous going in to this gap would be an understatement (I have only ever been nervous a couple of times in my sailing life!) With the adrenaline pumping we sailed in fast from the north, reaching in at full speed, the idea being to hug the rocks and carry speed through the first tack to give us the best chance of making the 2nd. As we trucked towards the rocks in the south of the gap at 6 knots I could feel the tension aboard building and I could read their minds ‘when will he call the tack???!!!’ the captain looking anxiously at me (he had the ultimate control to bail if he wanted) but he held fast and had confidence. ‘OK TACK’ I made the call and as the boat spins I leave the bridge and look towards the back of the boat to watch the transom swing towards the rocks, WOW. That was close, 20m from the shore but we needed every metre we could get!

Unusual boats and extreme conditions call for special tactics and measures

As we come out the tack the speed drops to 1.4 knots!! It’s speed build time but with only 200m to do so before we have to tack again.... slowly, it creeps up and the shore gets closer. We send the bow man on the front to check the rocks. 120m from the rock, speed at 3.5 knots… it’s not enough, we won’t me it!!!! (It is worth noting we have the engines in neutral and bow thrusters ready to go.) 80m from the rock (less than 1 boat length!!), boat speed at 4.5 knots ‘OK TACK’ Calmly the helmsman puts the tiller over and as we turn we decide to shoot the line, it’s all or nothing as we can’t build enough speed to tack again.

The trimmer feathers the rigs, pointing straight into the wind, the boat speed starts to drop, 3 knots…1.5 knots. We hear the call from the bow man ‘10m to go’ (15 seconds at this speed) but the speed continues to drop and with 10 seconds gone we are down to 1.2 knot, 5m to go and 1 knots speed (my heart is now pumping, will we make it or is it race over for us??!!)

We hear the call ‘that’s the line’ with only 0.8 knots boat speed. Wow that was a hell of a finish.

Double tacking in 3 boat lengths

‘Engines on and let’s get out of here’ comes the call from the Captain.

The falcon has done it again line honours and the win on handicap against all the odds!

This race was about strategy and planning, relying on the navigational software and having balls of steal!

Race 3 – when the door opens

Last day of racing and the mistrial is in, blowing 27-37knots throughout the straights between Sardinia and Corsica. Our race course sends us south of the wind border with potential light winds, as low as 10knots at the southernmost point in the course.

The aim at the start was to keep it simple and don't be over the line (as a hefty time penalty is applied).

We are last start on this final day. Watching and monitoring the boats that started ahead of us we can see that the wind is, as forecast, lighter in the south. Upon seeing this we make the decision to unfurl some more sails in our final approach to the line, this unfortunately makes us a little late for the start, not great to loose time from the off but better than being early. We cross the line trucking on a reaching at max speed, 3 knots quicker than the next fastest boat.

Quickly we reel in the boats ahead, our rival the competitive SY Blush defends her position against us sailing high to protect the inside for the mark and keeping clear air. But there is no defending against a boat going 40% quicker than you. We bear off and pass through to leeward, breaking the overlap before the 300m mark zone allowing us to sail the course we want and get the best rounding possible.

With a gap ahead and behind, allowing us to sail our own mode.

Then like the parting of the seas a right-hand shift started to lift us inside of the boats ahead. With strong winds, we sail well, trimming to the gusts and sailing in the pressure and shifts, before we know it we have lifted up inside all our competitors. It felt almost like a dream. This was a VMG upwind leg, we should have be losing to everyone on this leg but we passed from last to first - we could do no wrong!

1) second to last

2) Thank you very much right hand shift

3) hold it to the lay line

Having managed to adapt quickly on sail trim we were up to speed quickly as it took the other boats a mile/mile and a half to get settled. When they did they started to sail higher and faster than us, as expected. Our aim was to hold them as long as possible to the lay line to be able to tack inside of them and lay the mark. We just managed to do this and SY Spirit of the C's went for a tack across our bows, we tacked at the same time, just over lay with room to sail fast to the mark (rock again).

It was amazing to see 4 boats tacking in such close quarters on to the lay line in 25 knots. Anyone who thinks these beautiful boats are just for show could not be more wrong, they sail and can be pushed hard.

Close quarters in between the rocks, no room to pass on the inside so time to drop the bow and pass to leeward

We rounded the turning point in 3rd place, but the next leg was ours for the taking, a reach. We knew we would have to make our gains here as the next leg was an upwind leg with a tack in 30 knots of wind, we would be punished. We passed one boat to windward with ease. There remained one boat ahead of us, Blush, again! They defended high as they had done before blocking our passage between them and the rocks. We dropped the bow (casual ;) ) and powered through to leeward of them. As we approach the next turning mark fast we start to reduce sail area in anticipation of the beat.

A crackled voice comes over the VHF ‘Course shortened at the next mark!’ Wow this race could not go more our way if we had written it.

The falcon leading the charge to take line honours and the event on the final day having started last

Boat trucking at 15 knots 20deg of heel. Bang the gun goes, we have done it, line honours again. The bridge goes wild!

Our final daily race debrief attracted all the guests aboard – and rightly so!

The ease of sailing with the Dynarig amazed me, making the boat effortless to handle felt like a cross over between sailing my Figaro and the images of the Americas cup trimmers trimming to the numbers on the screens in front of them. No ropes to pull , no sails to furl, no one to wait up on to be ready to manoeuvre and no dangerous areas on the deck.

Races and regattas aren’t won by just the sailors and the racing on the day, they are only the final piece of the puzzle.

For me this regatta shows that preparation is key. All the work done by the crew, the team at Marine Results fitting the new sails, the new sails from Doyle's, the technical advice from Magma Structures on the rig and systems, the performance and rating work from the Dykstra office, all technical teams, the project and management team, and ultimately the boat ownership.

Alan Roberts - Navigator

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