Sailing: Satisfaction of success justifies living through hell
Andy Beadsworth, the new starting helmsman on GBR Challenge, contributes the first of his series of weekly columns from the America's Cup qualification series, the Louis Vuitton Cup, in Auckland.
Monday 14 October 2002
Sunday night and this has been a good week. This has probably been my best week in the 18 months at GBR Challenge and, apart from getting married just over a year ago, the best week since the Olympic Games in Sydney. Going out to start the race against Prada on Thursday – I had survived the first day on Wednesday because racing was cancelled – was almost a relief.
The day before had been good because I had been able to settle back into the boat without being thrown in at the deep end. Unlike any other campaign I had been in, where you set your own goal and then work steadily towards it, here I was part of a team, working very hard, doing all the training, and yet was not taking part in the event.
And this was a real race. Due to the nature of America's Cup campaigns, I have done less races in those 18 months than at any time since I was in my teens. For someone whose whole life is to race, that can be hard.
There is often as much focus on the five minutes before an America's Cup race, when the two boats circle, push and shove each other as they fight for advantage as there on the two plus hours which the six legs then take to complete. The starting helmsman is probably the most pressured job in the race alongside the tactician.
The expectations of the whole team are on your shoulders and it can be a long two hours if anything goes wrong. You can lose the race before you have even started it. There is no second chance, no opportunity of a comeback. The way GBR Challenge, like Prada, has decided to go means that you hand that job over to the race helmsman, in this case our skipper, Ian Walker. And there is no escape from then having to work with the team to the maximum of your ability for the duration of the race. There is no point in burying your head in your hand and, in any case, there will be an in-depth analytical debrief at the end when 30-odd people will express, sometimes forcefully, their opinions.
Most of us in this game know each other, having raced against each other for a number of years. So we know each other's characteristics and before we ever line up a few things will already have been discussed. How can we play the opposition, to what extent will the conditions, and the known performance of the boat in those conditions, suit the way we would normally want to play it? What have the weather experts told us we should be aiming for in terms gaining control of either the right or left hand of the course.
But you have to be flexible, especially on the rapidly changing conditions of these Auckland race tracks. You have to be ready to make a quick change and then make it stick. One of the traps is having too fixed a preconception of what is going to happen in those five minutes. There is a level of risk which is acceptable and the level of risk goes up the more aggressive you are – but the rewards can be higher.
Behind executing the moves lie days and weeks and months of practice as I and my counterpart, Andy Green, made sure everyone on the boat knew what we were trying to achieve, how to achieve and then do everything at speed. At the end of the day the decisions are made and are constantly being updated, based on information from the tactician, navigator and strategist.
All the time the clock is ticking down. So my job has similarities with an American Football quarterback, except that he only calls one play at a time. I may have to make a string of calls from a playbook which has been the subject of hours of discussion and practice.
When it works, the satisfaction helps you understand why you put yourself under the pressure, the hell, the anxiety. Against the Swedes we achieved not just a good start but a winning start. Inevitably, we want more.
Andy Beadsworth was talking to Stuart Alexander
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