Superheroes of the Supermaxis

Crosbie Lorimer | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 6
Casey Smith (right) – in the thick of it, as usual.
Crosbie Lorimer talks with three of Australia’s premier bowman and finds that doing the impossible is just part of the job.

So, you’ve done a successful stint as a bowman in your local club racing fleet and you’ve been wondering whether you’ve got what it takes to operate at the sharp end of one of those huge yachts that seem to be constantly over your yacht’s horizon – the 30m-long leviathans we know as Supermaxis.

Well, setting aside the years of experience you will require on the international grand prix racing circuit before you get a sniff of an invite for the position, what are the physical requirements for the job?

Let’s start you off with a couple of common challenges and see how you go.

What’s the damage?

Club Marine assessor Sven Runow stays close to the action

It’s somewhere off the Tassie coast in the middle of the night, the wind is blowing seadogs off anchor chains and you’re surfing at 55km/h aboard one of the world’s fastest Supermaxis. You’re going gybe-for-gybe with a close rival whose lights are visible close astern, hoping – like your opponents – the other will be first to wipe out.

It’s scary enough if you’re a highly experienced racing yachtsman, but if – like Wild Oats XI bow team member Sven Runow – you’re also a marine insurance assessor, it’s something akin to being an air crash investigator aboard a plane plummeting to earth – you know every ugly detail of the end game if the engines don’t restart!

“It’s not really something I gave too much thought to at the time; I was just totally focused on the task at hand,” says Runow, recalling the final night wrestle for line honours between Wild Oats XI and Alfa Romeo in the 2005 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

Runow started his career in his father’s boat building business. He’s now an assessor for Marine assess P/L, and regularly acts for Club Marine in assessing yacht damage for insurance purposes.

At the 2008 Audi Hamilton Island Race Week Runow was to be seen in action on and off the water, barely ashore from his own racing midweek before carrying out assessments on several yachts that had shaved rocks just a little too closely (see picture, below).

In 2007 Runow’s assessment skills were brought to bear just a shade closer to home than usual. He was racing aboard Wild Oats XI in the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Porto Cervo, Sardinia, when unexpectedly the mast came crashing to the deck. Runow and his colleagues were able to relay the assessment back to Club Marine in Australia quickly enough for owner Bob Oatley to order a new mast and make it to the start of that year’s Sydney Hobart Yacht Race – an event they would go on to win for the third time.

If you have ever attempted the greasy pole competition at your local club regatta, you will know that reaching that flag at the end of the pole is a major accomplishment. Now imagine the same challenge with a fire hose blasting you at full force from point blank range before the entire pole is plunged 2m underwater.

Still hanging on?

Well, that’s what you’ll have to do from time to time on the bowsprit. And don’t get too cocky either, because you’re not out there to hang on; you’re fixing that headsail furling gear, and when you’re finished there, we’ve got another job that needs your attention, pronto.

Your next challenge is to fix a jammed halyard lock, which requires you to switch from submariner to mountaineer. In this case, your personal Everest is a massive mast towering 40m above the deck, the top half of which is acting like a whippy fly swat. So, tie on that harness you’re wearing to a spare halyard and let’s go.

There may be a modest 2m swell at sea level, but when the hydraulic winch gets you to the top, the masthead is flicking you through an arc of 20m in an attempt to throw you clear before it smacks you back against the mast – there are no spare hands for hanging on here either. So, just get a vice-like grip around the mast with your thighs because you’ll need both hands free if you’re to have any chance of fixing this highly mobile problem.

Had enough yet?

If by some miracle you are still interested, you may perhaps have something of the ‘right stuff’ to become a bowman on one of the world’s handful of Supermaxis that trot the globe in search of big boat silverware.

If, however, you are a little uncertain as to whether a stint as an army commando might be a trifle less strenuous, then a brief chat with two Australians who are amongst the world’s elite in this field may help you decide.

Meet Tim ‘Crackers’ Wiseman (pictured, right) and Casey Smith, bowmen for Bob Oatley’s ‘Wild Oats XI’ and Grant Wharington’s ‘Skandia’ respectively.

Both are masters of understatement and recount experiences at sea that would have the rest of us regular yachties burying our heads in our bunks.

“You’ve got to have your wits about you up the front here,” says Smith – who is currently the bowman for the PUMA Ocean Racing’s entry in the gruelling ning-month-long Volvo Ocean Race 2008–2009 – pointing at the very narrow working area common to the bows on these boats. “You keep your safety harness on a short strop on the bow and occasionally when you see a big sea coming, you may have to jump up the forestay to avoid being thrown against the rigging.”

At over 40km/h of boat speed, a metre of solid water over the foredeck is not something you treat lightly(vague recollections come to mind of physics lessons at school and the memorable formula: one cubic metre of water = one tonne). Injuries are not uncommon in this role. On one occasion Smith found himself heavily bruised but remarkably with no broken bones, having been washed half the length of the foredeck and wrapped around the forward lifting keel known as the canard.

Casey Smith also had ‘a bit on’ during the 2007 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race – his sixth on Skandia – when the boat lost her topmast during the first night at sea racing at around 45km/h, hounding down Wild Oats XI and ICAP Leopard ahead of her.

“Once we’d secured things on deck, I did three trips up the mast in the dark to the third spreader to secure the broken section. As we couldn’t grind the mainsail down on the first trip up, I free-climbed the remaining section of the mast on the second trip and hacked the headboard away,” Smith recalls.

“On the third trip, I secured a jury-rigged backstay to secure the rest of the mast and then ‘Becksy’ went up to finish the job and we could start sailing again,” added Smith, referring to his right hand man, Mark Bartlett (whose nickname reportedly derives from an accent similar to David Beckham’s).

In large part thanks to Smith’s and Bartlett’s two hours up the mast and the never-say-die attitude typical of skipper Grant Wharington, Skandia completed the race in a very respectable time.

Tim Wiseman also has his own share of horror stories and injuries from close encounters with the forestay or mastheads. And while fearlessness is obviously a major prerequisite for this job, he cites preparation and foresight as the two major attributes required of a Supermaxi bowman.

“You work really hard in the pre-race preparation and leave nothing to chance. You check everything carefully and have a back-up for every possible contingency,” says Wiseman. “When you’re racing, you have to be thinking ahead the whole time and working through the upcoming moves, even thinking about what could go wrong and how you’ll address it. On an offshore race, maintenance is also crucial and I’ll be up the mast every morning at dawn doing a check on the rig,” he adds casually.

Casey Smith has a similar perspective on the role. “You really are in a management role,” he says, referring to the need to be able to direct the foredeck crew and to understand the bigger picture race strategy as well. “When I come up off watch, I’ll check in with the relief bowman as to what sail changes we’ve made and then I’ll talk to the navigator and find out about the forecast and the likely next tactical moves.”

Going off watch is not a predictable affair for these bowmen either. Like the navigators, they must be in a state of continuous readiness and consequently they ‘float’ in the watch system, being on call as and when the weather conditions, sail changes or race strategy require.

Nor is sleep easily achieved on these bare-bones racing machines even when the opportunity arises. The engines run continuously to power the hydraulics, while the sheer speed of the boat as she crashes into and through waves makes the below-deck environment similar to the inside of a boom box. Adding to the cacophony, the massive loads on the winches create sharp cracking noises as the sheets are constantly wound on or eased off the drums.

With so much noise around, communication on deck can be equally challenging.

At the front of a Supermaxi you’re a long way from the afterguard (the people at the back of boat controlling your destiny) – some 25m to be precise – so communications are, at best, difficult. The loudest shout from the bow will barely carry to the man at the mast in a good blow, so hand signals become a crucial means of conveying a range of messages.

Over recent years, some bowmen have employed electronic communications to good effect in short course racing and in more benign conditions. Sven Runow, Tim Wiseman’s right hand man on Wild Oats XI’s foredeck, will sometimes be ‘wired-up,’ allowing Wiseman to communicate through him to the back of the boat, but just as often the non-verbal communication of perhaps a dozen common hand signals work as effectively.

In an era of electronic push-button sailing, it’s easy to believe that the crew on these Supermaxis do not have to exert themselves as much as their winch-grinding counter parts on manual-powered yachts. In reality, the extra power that these supersize boats can generate allows the rigs to carry much larger sails and the crew must lug monster headsails – weighing up to 130kg – onto a heaving deck, forward to the bow and then hook them up, before taking the old sail below.

“It takes five men below to move one of these sails onto the deck and four to five men to pull them forward,” says Wiseman, “and there’s a lot of work to get the sails on and off the forestay too,” he adds.

Just watching a headsail change on Wild Oats XI during a good blow in the relatively benign conditions of the Derwent River at the end of the 2007 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race makes you realise what a major operation this would be offshore, at night, with a big sea running.

Fitness is at a premium for these bowmen. “Yes, I eat well and exercise every day; either a run or I visit the gym,” says Wiseman, “but in the end, I do enough sailing for it to be a workout in itself.”

The scale of challenges on these boats can sometimes be more time and resource consuming than physical. Typically it will take three to four crew up to 10 minutes to pack a spinnaker, a process requiring the sail to be tied with wool every few metres. “I don’t know how much wool we go through in repacking the kite every time, but there’s never enough of it,” says Smith.

Trying to stay dry as a bowman on any yacht is a major undertaking, but with the speed of the Supermaxis generating an almost permanent wet ‘n’ wild ride across the foredeck, being wet is simply part of the deal.

Wiseman says he will usually wear a dry suit and Smith favours a neoprene surfing vest for the Bass Strait crossing. Both agree that the wrist and neck seals get a serious workout in these conditions.

“In the end you know you’re going to be wet, so you just try to dress accordingly, ” laughs Smith. And what do Smith and Wiseman rate as their most memorable experiences aboard their respective machines?

“Just watching the rooster tail from the back of the boat in the dark as we hit 55km/h boat speed,” says Wiseman, recalling the last night of the 2005 Hobart and modestly eschewing any recollections of his numerous dangerous sorties up the mast. “Everyone was at the back of the boat and we were going gybe-for-gybe with Alpha Romeo before she wiped out.”

Smith also recalls a wild night at sea. “Coming back down from the top of the mast after fixing a furling problem at two in the morning, I was buzzing; I just went up to Grant Wharington with a big smile on my face and said ‘Wharo, this boat is wild!’”

So there you have it; the only qualifications you need are to be in top physical condition, quick thinking, totally fearless and happy to be wet and sleep deprived.

Still think you’re up to it?