by Christine Oneto
If someone had told me when I started following the America’s Cup races that I would be riding on Luna Rossa, the Italians’ AC45, I never would have believed it. But, there I was. Nearly twenty feet above the water…sailing (more like flying) on the back of an America’s Cup World Series catamaran with four world-class sailors!
So, how is it that I landed this dream of a ride that anyone who is a sailor would envy? Leading up to the America’s Cup finals in the summer of 2013, the summer of 2012 was a flurry of events, happy hours and meet-and-greets with the sailors and the Americas Cup Event Authority Marketing Team that some friends and I were fanatic about. During an event at America’s Cup Park on Marina Green, it was recommended that we all enter their sweepstakes on Facebook to win a chance to be the “5th Man” on an actual AC45 boat. So we all did. After about 3-4 weeks – at which time I’d forgotten all about entering – I received an email that was one of the best I’ve ever received: saying that I was the overall winner! I was stunned, and frankly, at first thought it might be a joke. Well, it was real alright, and thus began my journey and the anticipation for the actual event day.
When the day had finally arrived, I was told that I would be scheduled to ride on the Luna Rossa Swordfish boat – the Italian team, skippered by Max Sirena. I was so excited, and caffeine-filled that I headed straight to the Napa Valley booth for a pre-race 1⁄2-glass to stem my nervous excitement. The air show took place, with my anticipation still brewing. And then, finally, I was off in a golf cart, on my way to meet the chase boat that would take me out to my ride: Luna Rossa for a ride of a lifetime!
I can’t begin to describe the excitement and mix of emotions that I had while being suited up into my waterproof sailing gear, (but I’m going to try!) I was uber excited, yet nervous at the same time. I was an eager listener, as they explained (with diagrams, pictures and everything) what my “duty” on the boat would be and how to maneuver with the team. The host suggested that from her experience, it was best to crawl, rather than walk upright across the trampoline – the small, thin area at the back of the boat that we would need to stay in. This would offer less of a chance of falling off. Hearing that, I just got a slight lump in my throat. But, still, the excitement of the impending ride far outweighed it. Then, actually being assigned a chase boat and climbing onboard, (even though I felt like the Stay-puff Marshmallow Man in my ill-fitting, huge foul weather gear and life vest), I felt as if I was walking on air: I was that much closer to my destination, Luna Rossa. We motored up alongside them, and then the captain of the stake boat held my arm and helped me cross over to the catamaran – time for the big race, now!
Right away, the Italians were all so accommodating of me. They gave me some brief instructions – in their thick Italian accents – and I was told to “stay in this area.” The skipper of the ship, himself, actually came over to me with duct tape to tape my shoelaces down to my shoes so as to prevent any slips. I felt like a princess being looked after…a world-class sailor. It was so amazing… The crew were so protective of me throughout the entire ride; and during it, one of them actually coming to sit down beside me at a point in the race that was a particularly choppy stretch. Because of this, and because my friend (who is a reporter who used to cover sports such as car racing) had told me to remember to “take it all in!,” I never actually felt scared while I was out there on the water. Even at 28-30 knots, it was always, knowing that the crew were so expert at what they did and confident – through my crawling – that I would not actually go overboard. Because it was a fleet race, at one point, I looked up, all around me and saw several of the other boats going past us. The closest at the time, the British JP Morgan boat, skimmed right past us such that I thought, “One slight move and we may have hit each other, there!” But, everything was under control and once again, it made me realize what good hands I was in.
At another point during the race, when I was actually getting a little exhausted from all the tacking and crawling back and forth, I managed to look around me and just “take it all in” as my friend had suggested – the grinders, speedily turning the gears, the yells back and forth from the skipper to the helmsman, and the constant motion of one sailor or another speeding to the other side of the boat. But, I noticed that even with all the excitement and the speeds we were going, the bustle of the crew about the boat, there was this feeling of calm at that one moment. In between tacks, just cruising. It was the best feeling in the world. At another point in time, I looked below us to see how far above the Bay’s surface we were: it was at least 20 feet. I was just in awe, at that moment, realizing what an expert crew this bunch of sailing pros was. And for that brief moment, it was also so peaceful, like just another day out on the Bay. I felt grateful and fulfilled, all at once. This was not only the first race I had ever been in, but it was also probably one of the most unique vessels and the fastest speeds I would ever go in my life…Unless, of course, I get to do another guest ride someday at a future America’s Cup event. Hey, a girl can dream!
Christine is a San Francisco-based public relations consultant who specializes in content strategy. She is also a writer/blogger, past Girls in Tech editor and ocean advocate. Free time favored roles are foodie and winelover.