Mercury News staff writer Julia Prodis Sulek fancied herself a sailing expert after learning to sail on the Detroit River and winning her share of amateur races in a traditional 19-foot sailboat in Texas more than a decade ago. But on Wednesday she learned what serious hold-on-for-your-life racing is all about with the best sailors on the planet. She took the guest-seat for a heart-stopping ride aboard an AC45 catamaran that will be competing next week in the America's Cup World Series in the San Francisco Bay.
As soon as I strapped on the crash helmet from the Oracle Racing equipment box Wednesday afternoon, I regretted bragging about my past sailing chops.
Sure, I'd skippered a 19-foot Flying Scott in a few regattas a decade ago, but all I needed then for safety was a life jacket. A crash helmet? Really?
I learned today that the sailors racing the AC45 -- the high-tech twin-hulled catamarans that will be racing in the America's Cup World Series in the San Francisco Bay next week -- exert themselves so much on board that their heart rates reach 180 beats a minute. I think mine reached 200 before I even stepped aboard.
Call me a masochist, but I spent the better part of the night before my chance to ride the Oracle Team USA boat replaying a video of an AC45 capsize in the bay last summer, where
Oracle crew member Dirk De Ridder didn't help matters when he told me before boarding to "holding on for dear life," and whatever happened out there -- even if I started heading into the drink -- DO NOT GRAB the most obvious thing to grab, a thin shaft heading to the top of the boat. "It will suck your fingers into the block," he said.
Still, I began to worry more about embarrassing myself on board with these five world-class sailors than getting injured. And sure enough, when I jumped from the moving chase boat in the middle of the bay onto the flexible trampoline of the catamaran, I tripped and fell flat on my rear-end.
"Well, hello Jimmy," I said to Jimmy Spithill, the famous skipper who won the America's Cup trophy for Oracle's Larry Ellison in 2010, as I bottom-bounced over to him, extending my hand.
He directed me to sit on a wide pipe that extended behind the tiller at the back of the boat, resting my feet on netting on either side. Hold on, Jimmy told me, pointing toward a red rope that ran taut like a guitar string across the back. I felt very alone and unsteady, as though at any minute I might fall off and end up dragging like an aluminum can behind the boat.
And then we were off, starting with a gusher of salt water thrashing my face and down my throat as the boat gained speed. (Thanks, Jimmy!) I held on tight as the crew trimmed the sails and one pontoon lifted out of the water. But the tip of the lower pontoon dug into the water -- just like it did in the video before the capsize! -- then leveled off again. Whew!
As the crew rushed from one side to the other with every tack and jibe, they had the somewhat graceful look of Irish dancers on the trampoline, hopscotching across the thick tangle of lines to get to the high side of the boat. But I had to remain in place! What if I fell off the back? With the boat pitching into and out of the choppy waters, I held onto the red line like a cowboy in a rodeo.
"Five, four, three, two, one," Jimmy called out. "Let's go!"
For a moment I admired the skyline -- Coit Tower, Ghirardelli Square, the St. Francis Yacht Club. What a venue for a sailing race! What an experience: the wind at my face, the speed of the boat!
But the next second, a crew member shouted out, "Watch out for the fishing boat!"
Yikes! The 70-foot-sail had blocked the skipper's view. With a quick maneuver that had me switching my weight back and forth before I could tell which way he was going, the skipper averted disaster.
I couldn't help but have the feeling that maybe these guys were messing with me -- giving this newspaper reporter a ride to remember, then laughing in the clubhouse afterward.
I can't say for sure. But I certainly was glad to have that crash helmet.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.