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Sailing to the Extreme

Sail Racing Magazine editor Justin Chisholm takes a look at how the Extreme Sailing Series has redefined yacht racing as a spectator sport, and offers a grandstand experience within a whisker of the high-speed action.

Despite being recognised as one of the largest participation sports in the world, sailboat racing has historically struggled to effectively position itself as a spectator sport. The primary reasons being that – while there is generally no lack of action on the water – typically racing takes place too far away from land for people to make any sense of what is going on, and the complexities of the sport of sailing are difficult for the uninitiated observer to comprehend. However, six years ago both of those issues went out of the window with the advent of the Extreme Sailing Series – an innovative and uncompromising format designed to redefine the concept of sailing as a spectator sport.

The Extreme Sailing Series essentially threw away the established regatta rulebook to refocus on the needs of the spectator and to align itself with those of the highly competitive sailors attracted to the new multihull racing format. A new class of lightweight high-speed 12.2m/40ft multihulls (known as the Extreme 40) was already in production, designed by Mitch Booth and Yves Loday, and international venues were selected primarily for their capability to run racing within meters of the shore, guaranteeing spectators a grandstand view of the fast and furious action

Grandstand view of the action © Lloyd Images

The challenge of racing the new Extreme 40 catamarans attracts some of the best professional sailors in the world and from the very first regatta the Extreme Sailing Series was nothing short of a sensation. Huge crowds gathered to watch Olympic champions, America’s Cup veterans and World Champion professional sailors battling each other at breakneck speeds around minuscule courses set within touching distance of the shore. The potential for disaster is a big draw for sporting spectators (just ask a Formula 1 or NASCAR fan) and the Extreme Sailing Series had it by the truckload. The power and speed of the Extreme 40 cats means that the sailors are often on the edge of losing control. As a result, high speed wipe-outs, crashes and dramatic capsizes are all simply part of the game. A runaway success from the very first event, the Extreme Sailing Series had changed the face of sailboat racing forever.

The fact that the Extreme Sailing Series has so far survived the highly turbulent economic times which scuppered several other long established professional regatta circuits, and continues not merely unscathed, but rather firing on all cylinders and seemingly stronger than ever, is a testimony to the nerve, vision and guile of its creator, Mark Turner. Turner is Executive Chairman of global sports marketing company OC Sport – an operation specialising in ‘professional sailing and outdoor events ranging from running, cycling and biathlon, with an eye on more extreme sports including adventure and trail running races’. After a foray into the East in 2009/10, which saw highly successful Extreme Sailing Series regattas staged across Asia, in 2011 OC Sport announced a fully international nine-Act circuit starting in February and concluding in December, comprising nine events taking in North America, Europe, Arabia and Asia. “Venturing into new territories is a result of the same logic that makes us think outside the box and always try to redefine the sport of sailing,” said Turner.

Spectators in Qingdao with a first hand view of the racing  © Lloyd Images

Without doubt, the Extreme Sailing Series has benefited from the happy coincidence that the 34th edition of sailing’s oldest and most high profile event, the America’s Cup, was no longer to be raced in monohulls but in super-fast carbon catamarans. In exactly the right place at exactly the right time, the Extreme 40 series attracted entries from well-known America’s Cup campaigns from the past, present and future, such as Emirates Team New Zealand, Artemis Racing, Alinghi and Luna Rossa – three of those urgently needing to hone their multihull skills for the 34th America’s Cup in 2013, and in the process helping to raise the ante of the Extreme Sailing Series.

In whatever capacity, a visit to an Extreme Sailing Series regatta is an utterly unforgettable experience – a reason perhaps why every event is thronged with crowds made up of sailing fanatics, the general public as well as flocks of VIP corporate guests enjoying full hospitality packages. From morning until night there is never a dull moment, with the racing action on the water matched by equally frenetic onshore activities. Each regatta venue is transformed into a stylish tented regatta village, featuring bars, live entertainment, a public viewing area and a glitzy VIP lounge. But the racing is the undisputed star of the show, with teams scrapping it out for valuable series point just a few feet away from the crowd of often wildly cheering spectators. The atmosphere can only be described as electric and makes for a totally unique experience.

Guest sailor experience © Lloyd Images

For the lucky few, the chance to sail aboard one of the boats in the much sought after guest spot, delivers a heart-pumping and truly memorable experience. As a guest on an Extreme 40 your main priorities are simple: hold on tight, make sure you don’t fall off, and enjoy the ride. Even for an experienced sailor, getting aboard an Extreme 40 in full racing mode is nothing short of breathtaking. You will never get closer to the action than this and although you are not required (or indeed allowed) to get involved in racing the boat, you cannot help but marvel at the skill and stamina of the sailors as they manhandle their carbon flying machines around the racecourse at mind boggling speeds. The moment you feel your boat power up, instantly accelerate to top speed, and then almost literally take off, rocketing along with one hull flying high above the water, is one even the most battle-hardened corporate guest or journalist will never ever forget. Back ashore, the fun doesn’t stop when the racing finishes, with the regatta bars serving up plenty to drink along with top quality live acts late into the evening.

As the Extreme Sailing Series redefined the sport of sailing for the public, so others are following suit and that can only be a good thing for the sport as a whole. Long may it continue.

Justin Chisholm is Editor of Sail Racing Magazine www.sailracingmagazine.com


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