Size matters. Dont let anyone tell you otherwise. And size is the first thing that comes to mind when you lay eyes on the 106-foot maxi catamaran Club Med. Sitting at her berth in the Marina de Vilamoura, this giants 136-foot wing mast towers over the other vessels moored here in Europes largest marina on the Portuguese Algarve coast. The freeboard on her twin hulls closes on nine feet; her semi-custom Lewmar winches are bigger than hat boxes; and youd need two hands to encircle the shroud terminals on her uppers. Like the hype surrounding the circumnavigating event for which this behemoth has been builtThe Race of the Millenniumalmost every aspect of Club Med is larger than life.
Under brilliant sunshine, the striking graphics adorning her hulls and sparwith fish and turtles and a bathing beauty cavortingbelie the vessels all-business nature.
But Club Med
is purely and simply a racing machine, a point that comes across as soon as her 13-person crew goes to work. It takes eight grinders, one tailer halyard, and two line tenders to get the 3,780-square foot mainsail up. And once it fills, 106 feet of turbo-charged multihull begin to awaken. Four crew are needed to hoist the headsail (one of nine that will make up the final inventory for The Race), and with that set, the boat springs to life, rapidly leaving the Vilamoura coastline astern.
Standing behind the titanium wheel in the port-side cockpit, co-skipper Grant Dalton checks that both 13-foot daggerboards are deployed as this ocean-going monster picks up speed in a remarkably unnoticeable fashion. The true-wind gauge in front of Dalton registers 10.5 knots and the speedo shows nine knots, then quickly it moves up to 12.3, then 12.5, and 12.8 as crew member Herve Jan fine-tunes the headsail trim. Theres very little communication needed between Dalton, co-skipper Franck Proffit stationed in the starboard cockpit 50 feet to leeward, or any of the other 11 crew. Just the shout of a name and a terse hand signal accomplishes a little more tension on the cunningham, or a slight ease of the one-inch-diameter mainsheet.
Dalton and the rest of the Club Med team have come to Vilamoura for the final months of preparation before the start of this winters mega event, The Race. The boats eponymous sponsor has a popular resort property nearby, and Dalton fully appreciates the importance of keeping a sponsor content. Despite his co-skipper status and his own protestations to the contrary, this Kiwi is the team leader of Club Med. With the experience of five Whitbread campaigns on his curriculum vitae, respect for this New Zealander is almost automatic, and his imprimatur of cautious, thorough preparation is everywhere. Even the crews jovial yet business-like demeanor echoes Daltons easy going style. When asked what size waves he expected to see going around the world, the 43-year-old Kiwi replies: "Well thats a hard one because normally when people tell you that they were in 60-foot waves, you straightaway have to figure in a 50 percent BS factor, so they were probably in 30-foot waves. But I dont know how big they'll be," he says with a shake of his head. "Big bastards for sure."
Out on the water, as the big cat glides along, theres relatively no sensation of speed until you check yourself by looking through the 1,400-square-foot trampoline to see the Atlantic rushing by between the hulls. Dalton calls for a jibe and just before he bears off, the boat is hit by a puff of 17 knots. The speedo surges above 20 knots, moving past 22, then 25, and topping out at 25.9 before it begins to descend as the boat bears away. Its a tease for the guests aboard and a testimony for the crew. They know their craft has the jets to transport them around the world in front of their rivals, but, as Dalton says, "success depends upon reliability and being smart."
Being smart began for Dalton and Club Meds directors when they chose the Gilles Ollier design team to conceive this behemoth and the Multiplast yard in Vannes, France, to build it. Their combined expertise is reflected in the boats pedigree, with ancestors like Jet Services, Elf Aquitaine, Royale, among others, and three Americas Cup Class monohulls. Dalton made another smart move when he signed on Mike Quilter in the navigators role. Quilter has been around the world three times with Dalton, and thats just one aspect of his resume. As a specialist, he wont be counted among the three, four-person watch teams on the boat, but he nonetheless hits the pedestal handles, trims the sails, and fills in wherever theres a need.
To complement those initial moves, Dalton and company then put together a crew of experienced sailors from nine nations whose combined talents in offshore racing and multihull performance are unrivaled. In all, the crew brings the experience of 22 circumnavigations and an untold number of transatlantic passages to this project. If theres a gamble anywhere in this strategy, its a bet that the synergy between multihull specialization and offshore experience will prevail.
Across the streetthe crews jargon for the opposite hullmultihull maven and co-skipper Franck Proffit sits gazing out from behind his wrap-around sunglasses. A decorated offshore veteran at the age of 37, he stresses that the team is still learning the boat. "The rule is dont break the boat," says Proffit. One thing theyre learning, he adds, is that the size of the boat is deceiving when it comes to speed: "It doesnt feel like 35 knots, so thats why we dont know so much about this boat. We know that we must slow down sometimes, and that is what is going to be hard, but you have to be really careful all the time because theres not one single line on the boat thats not under a load of two to three tons."
Proffit is alluding to the mystery surrounding material tolerances and fatigue factors; for a boat of these proportions, there just isnt much data available to dictate how strong a certain component must be. Because of that, he and the rest of the crew are particularly concerned about eliminating weight anywhere possible. Weight on a performance multihull is anathema because not only does it slow the boat down, he says, it creates greater loads on the gear and the structure of the vessel itself. Neal MacDonald, a composite specialist and fellow watch captain on Club Med concurs: "I could break this boat in a matter of hours in the wrong conditions," he says, alluding to the big waves everyone expects they'll encounter in the southern ocean. "Its a sensitive, delicate, fragile boat, and we know that." MacDonald claims that not even the equipment suppliers know how their gear will perform, because theres never been a racing multihull this large before The Race. "Finding the balance and finessing the boat will be important," he concludes.
As the big boat swings into a jibe, MacDonald bounces away across the tramp toward the other hull. On such a fine, calm day, its hard to imagine how this craft will behave in waves a third as high as its masthead. Though the team has sped across the Atlantic once, and covered nearly as many miles in the north-south direction, they havent really tested Club Meds mettle in big seas. Its an issue that gives everyone on board pause, but its also just part of the job. "Were out here to be the fastest boat that there has ever been," explains Dalton with a shrug. "Thats what these boats are. I dont really know if we have an edge, but I suppose thats why you race."