Liftoff

....

There are some days when I merely think I've got one of the best jobs in the world, and there are other days when I'm completely certain of it. From a pure thrills point of view, last October 12 was one of the latter. Actually, it started off pretty average: The wind was blowing a solid 20 knots out of the northeast, the passing rain showers were biting, and the lumpy Chesapeake Bay was gray and nasty. On top of that, our four-person, independent Boat of the Year (BOTY) judging panel--whose efforts to determine the best boats for 2006 I was overseeing--had no fewer than seven vessels to sail that day in the challenging conditions. Yes, the sailing was terrific, but the whole exercise also felt a lot like work. And then we boarded the Gunboat 48 catamaran.

Gunboat founder Peter Johnstone built hull number one of the new 48-foot line for himself, and he optimized every inch of the boat to be a no-holds-barred sailing machine. For future Gunboat owners, Peter will "compromise" the Morrelli & Melvin design with all manner of creature comforts, but for his own family cruising, he took a minimalist's approach to accommodations and systems while maxing out the speed potential of the carbon/Kevlar rocketship.

To top it off, he painted it a color he describes as "metallic lime green." I'd already sailed the Gunboat in Rhode Island in light airs a couple of weeks earlier, so I had a very general idea of what we were in for. But as we stepped aboard, I glanced back at the judges and saw four sets of very wide eyes. They were about to get wider.

Peter's pure joy of sailing is infectious, and it wasn't long before he had us swapping the helm while sailing closehauled in 30 knots of apparent breeze and knocking off speeds of 10 and 11 knots. Then he flashed a crooked smile and asked a fateful question: "Want to see what she does off the breeze with the asymmetric?"

Truthfully, it wasn't necessary. We were judging the boat on its merits as a family performance cruiser and didn't require a glimpse of its potential in hot-rod mode. But I took one look at judges Bill "Fast is Fun" Lee and multihull veteran Peter Hogg, who'd sailed the Morrelli & Melvin maxi-catamaran PlayStation in speed trials all over the world, and realized the cat was well and truly out of the bag.

So up came the daggerboards, and up went the big blue kite with Peter J.-thankfully-on the helm and Hogg and Lee on the spin sheet and mainsheet, respectively. What happened next happened very quickly. The starboard hull started rising. The apparent wind wound forward. We hit 16 knots, then 16.5, then 17.8. The hull rose some more. Standing next to Peter, I watched him throw the wheel down hard. Nothing. Then a command: "Blow the sheets!"

That got us back on our feet, but there seemed to be one small problem, other than the smoked Spectra spin sheet that was now toast: no steering. Peter switched on the engine and threw down the throttle, and finally, order was resumed. The spinnaker was returned to its sock. Peter had a look aft, and another of life's mysteries was solved. The port carbon rudder was long gone.

So now I can honestly say I know what happens when a big, stripped-down cat flies a hull, lifts one rudder into space, loses the other, and has nothing in the realm of blades in the water to counteract the forces aloft. Wipeout!

Next month, in our January issue, we'll reveal more details of our October sailing trials and also present our slate of Boat of the Year winners for 2006. As for Peter, he'll have the Gunboat 48 in Miami this winter for anyone interested in an unreal sailing experience. He's clearly another guy who loves his work.