america-cup-tour

Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Spring/Summer 2008 issue.

Although I’d worked as a “two-stripe” officer on the largest cruise ship in the world prior to returning to Puerto Vallarta, I had never stepped onto a sailboat before. All I knew about America’s Cup sailboats was that they were racing vessels with gigantic sails. Clearly, I was a rookie. However, by the end of the day, I knew the difference between jibbing and tacking, had learned various starting-line strategies to outmaneuver the competition before the start, and was even grinding the winch to help propel our boat to victory! About noon, a group of 11 would be sailors gathered under the shaded roof of the tour meeting area at Marina Vallarta, eagerly awaiting our adventure. Many of us had never sailed before and had no idea what we were in for. Before long, the rest of the group, who had boarded at the marina in Nuevo Vallarta, arrived at the dock, and we were ready to step into history together.

We were an eclectic group of people from various locations in Canada and the USA, one couple hailing from the Netherlands. The group ranged in age from mid-20s all the way up to their 60s, with me being somewhere in the middle, a 50-ish Canadian woman.

Mark and Tony of Vallarta Adventures welcomed us and provided a brief history of the America’s Cup and an overview of the excursion. A few minutes later, we were boarding a 30-foot Apex inflatable boat to take us to our sailboats. I was in the group assigned to the black sailboat, nicknamed the Black Pearl, while our opponents were assigned to the white boat, which our crew referred to as the White Pig.

No one offered to be honorary captain of the Black Pearl, so one was volunteered from the ranks. Captain Rob, sporting designer shades and three-day-old five o’clock shadow, embraced his new appointment with a quiet confidence. Teaming with our professional Captain Campbell, a former Australian America’s Cup captain, we were in good hands.

A few minutes later, sporting our high-tech inflatable life jackets, we were alongside the Black Pearl, and the anticipation was building. I was the only woman in the group, which otherwise consisted of businessmen from western Canada. I quickly sized them up and, even though I had the scrawniest arms, I was determined I would hold my own and do my part to lead the Black Pearl to victory!

Once onboard, we were given safety instructions to watch for the lines on deck, as well as to be aware of the uneven deck surface so we didn’t
fall. Our main job was to grind the winches, which looked like a large bicycle pedal assembly. Partners faced each other, one on each side of the winch, and learned how to safely grind in unison. Grinding was necessary to raise the sails and alter their positions during the race to maneuver the boats strategically toward the finish line.

Captain Campbell described the two basic sailing maneuvers we would be using: tacking, which is turning the boat while sailing upwind, so the wind direction crosses the bow during the turn; and jibbing, which is turning the boat while sailing downwind, causing the wind direction to cross over the stern of the boat.

Our plan was to sail a zigzag pattern, tacking and jibbing our way through the course. The first task was raising the enormous sails - the mainsail weighing 140 kg and the front sail, the jib, weighing 60 kg. The “six-minute gun” sounded to alert us of the pending start of race one, although the boats can’t go into the starting area until five minutes before the race begins.

Each boat is trying to force the other team off the starting line by following the rules of racing, one of which being that a boat on starboard tack always has the right of way — except if both boats are on a starboard tack, then the leeward boat has the right of way. The start is the most critical part of the race. Captain Campbell informed us, “If you win the start, you rule the race!”

Before we knew it, the gun sounded and the race was on. There were two pairs of human grinders on the jib and another two pairs on the main sail. The first pairs of grinders were in position, awaiting orders from the crewmember in charge of each sail to start or stop grinding, and whether to grind in a forward or backward direction. This frequent adjustment of the sails kept us on course and racing toward victory. The grinding was hard work and very intense but was done in short spurts, and we had fun doing it as a team.

While this was going on, the rest of the real crewmembers were working with the lines, and there was constant activity onboard. We sailed upwind, tacking numerous times to reach the windward buoy, marking the turning point halfway into the race. After rounding the buoy, we sailed downwind, jibbing back and forth to reach the finish line.

It was a photo finish, but sadly, the “judge” at the finish line had no camera, and the win was awarded to the White Pig. However, this didn’t deflate the crew of the Black Pearl. It only spurred us on!

By the second race, we were pumped and really working as a team. Tony explained the maneuver of “dirty air,” which means the boat in the lead maneuvers in front of the other boat to interfere with the wind in their sails, preventing them from sailing past. This time, we sailed our way to victory.

Just prior to the final race, the winds intensified, as did our adrenalin. We out-maneuvered the other boat at the starting line and were well in the lead; however, we committed a right-ofway infraction at the windward buoy and had to sail in a penalty circle before continuing. Despite this setback, the crew of the Black Pearl never gave up and went on to win the race by multiple boat lengths! All that was missing was TV coverage via satellite.

A post-event party is a vital component of any sporting event — to rehash the close calls and revel in the perfectly executed strategies. To our delight, just after the final race was completed, chilled beverages and snacks materialized on deck, and we enjoyed our nautical fiesta while sailing lazily around Banderas Bay.

The experience was amazing! Being on the boats was incredible in itself, but the thrill of competition really got the adrenalin flowing. Regardless of age or the size of our muscles, everyone took turns grinding, and it truly felt like a team effort.

This fabulous adventure is perfect for marine aficionados who are eager to get a hands-on sailing experience on one of the most amazing sailing vessels in the world. Or if you prefer, wear your bathing suit and catch a few rays while watching everyone else work up a sweat. Experience this once-in-a-lifetime adventure while visiting Puerto Vallarta.

A special thank-you to sailing aficionado and Vallarta Nautica photographer Jay Ailworth for his collaboration on this story and his outstanding photos of the adventure.