BMW Sail Racing AcademyEvents
Written by John Summerton // Photography by Pedro Martinez
‘Prepare to tack,’ the skipper yells, and I check the mainsail whilst clinging to the boat and frantically trying to remember everything from our morning briefing. Sailing is completely new to me, so when I was invited to participate in a sail-racing academy as part of a British team with BMW I was both apprehensive and excited. However, I’ll never say no to a challenge or an opportunity to push myself. Now, after just a couple of hours on the water running through the basics of navigation, equipment and technique, we are racing against experienced European teams.
The BMW Sail Racing Academy forms a link between amateur sailing and some of the most prestigious yachting events in the Mediterranean. Born in 2005, the three-day intensive training course has a long tradition of teaching professional sailing techniques and racing strategies.
The event takes place in Palma de Mallorca and consists of a few short classroom briefings by Italian pro Roberto Ferrarese – a winner of the Admiral’s Cup, several World & European Championships, and a three-time America’s Cup athlete – and a series of races in the bay. The overall winners of the weekend move on to compete in the Copa Del Rey race later in the year. In the briefings, Roberto, alongside the successful German racer Markus Wieser, explained the principles behind sail racing: teamwork and communication, the need for tacticians, boat positioning, and foresight to be proactive not reactive when racing.
We were then unleashed to our boats to put these theories into practice. The learning curve was steep. Less than three hours earlier, half of our team hadn’t even stepped on a boat before – let alone operated a jib sail, constantly adapting and winching the sheets in tight for speed. But it wasn’t too long before we flew along with the boat heeling nicely, our crew of six perched high on the windward side to balance things out. I manned the mainsail and felt nervous about the boat capsizing so remained on the edge of my seat, ready to loosen the sails at the slightest gust. Gradually we got to grips with things, mainly thanks to Elenour, our extremely patient Catalan skipper, who kept her cool while five non-seafaring Brits did their best to practise tacking and gybing at speed.
The adrenaline really kicked in when the whistle blew, marking five minutes until the start of the race. Navigating a 25ft boat to the start line through choppy seas and gusting winds, whilst jostling for position with five other teams, is no easy task. The objective is to fly across the line exactly when the timer hits zero at the start of the race, but that’s easier said than done. In one of our previous attempts, we crossed the line before time and were given a penalty, and in another we were so far away that the race was half finished before we even crossed the start.
However, this time things are looking good. We slow our boat a few metres from the preferred side of the markers with just 15 seconds to spare, then pull the sails in tight and cross the line in prime position ready to tack our way to the windward buoy. I look back and see the Swedish and Danish teams hot on our heels. Earlier in the day we’d had a pretty intense lesson about velocity made good (VMG), calculating the best path to our destination and finding the balance between speed and distance. When faced with a headwind, only tacking – zigzagging directly into the wind – makes progress possible, but it requires finesse. We find an angle that makes us fly through the water but soon realise how far from the marker we’re veering, and find ourselves slipping behind. We reach the buoy in the middle of the pack and open the sails wide for the downwind leg.
We cross the line in third place – our best result of the weekend and not bad considering our extreme amateur status. I wasn’t sure what to expect from sail racing, and although competitive events aren’t usually my thing, the exhilaration of harnessing the power of the wind, being part of a team and finding the balance between being in control and riding by the seat of your pants was pretty incredible. And that’s exactly what the BMW sail-racing academy sets out to achieve in this unique training programme.