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History was made at 5 p.m. New Zealand time on December 21, 1998, as Christine Fletcher, the Mayor of Auckland, cracked a bottle of bubbly over the bow of Steve Fossett's behemoth new 105-foot catamaran. For the last two years, the working name of the estimated $7 million project was simply BFB ("big f***ing boat"). At the much-anticipated launching ceremony, the boat's actual name was revealed - PlayStation, after their sponsor Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's popular Sony PlayStation product. Covering an area the size of an ice hockey rink, the new boat is apparently a breathtaking sight just idling at the dock.

Ironically, Fossett was too high - literally - to make the launching. He was three days into a round-the-world balloon voyage with British tycoon Richard Branson, threading a precarious needle between hostile air space over Iraq, Iran and Russia about the time PlayStation was splashed. Fossett is expected to show up in Auckland after New Year's to participate in sea trials.

As the first of the new breed of 100+ foot cats for The Race, PlayStation will be the benchmark boat for others to design and compete against. You can read about Fossett's new toy in more technical detail in the glossies over the next few months; in the meantime, we wanted to provide the first glimpses of the boat, and introduce some of the people behind it, and the challenges they will take on in the upcoming two years. Next month, we hope to have pictures of PlayStation under sail.

The Boat

Numbers and words don't adequately describe the sheer enormity of PlaySta-tion, but we have to start somewhere: the new cat is 105 feet overall, 97.5 feet on the waterline, the mast is 147.5 feet off the water, the beam is 60 feet, and the daggerboards draw 14.7 feet. The hulls are narrow with high bows; deep cockpits are nestled behind the modern, canopy-style cabintops. The graphics are red, yellow and black. We're not exactly sure of the boat's freeboard, but it's about seven feet higher than the dock - the crew has built a multi-level ramp to access the deck.

The only dimension that the designers aren't revealing is the displacement, which would be of critical interest to potential competitors. Pete Melvin, however, would say this: "PlayStation will sail in excess of 35 knots, making it the fastest ocean sailing craft ever built."

The boat took shape over the last 21 months at Cookson Boats, in the heart of the America's Cup village on Auckland's waterfront. For the last few weeks, a 20-man crew worked seven days a week in order to launch the cat on schedule. For obvious reasons, security surrounding Fossett's project was tight - causing rumors to circulate about its length (most had it at 120-125 feet) and 'radicality'. What finally emerged from Cookson's shop in mid-December was, according to crewmember Peter Hogg, "A beautifully-built boat, one that is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It's consistent with offshore catamarans such as Explorer, only without the pod in the middle. Other projects for The Race, notably Pete Goss's, are much more extreme. PlayStation is basically a huge jump up in size, but still within the knowledge level of her designer and crew."

Constructed of prepreg carbon fiber with aluminum honeycomb cores, PlayStation has two extra bows inside each hull, spaced six feet apart, which essentially serve as high-tech crash bulkheads. Each hull, unpainted on the inside to save weight, contains four bunks and an engine. One hull houses a minimal galley, the other a state-of-the-art nav station. In addition to the de rigeur instrument and weather package, the boat will be able to communicate with TV, Internet, radio and print media. One diesel generator and two wind generators help power all these devices.

Aloft, the towering Southern Spars carbon rig will support 7,274 square feet of sail upwind, and a total of 11,631 square feet downwind - about eight times bigger than the floor plan of our house! The gigantic, raked-back mast is non-rotating, one of few areas where the designers have taken a conservative approach. The sheaves for the halyards are, according to one observer, "the size of small pizza pans." The carbon boom - which has 'wings' to support the gigantic mainsail when it is reefed or dropped - is controlled by a solid, hydraulic mainsheet coming out of the traveller. It's an interesting-looking arrangement that resembles a large vang at the wrong end of the boom.

Lewmar winches, including seven coffee grinders, and deck gear control the rest of the sail inventory - a 1,700-pound carbon/spectra mainsail (which was recently lifted aboard by a crane), masthead reacher, masthead genoa, solent jib, an upwind staysail and a storm jib. All sails were constructed by North Sails San Diego using kevlar/spectra, panel-built construction (not 3DL). Three of the sails will live on roller-furlers (bowsprit, headstay, staysail), with the rest stowed in bags on the nets or stuffed into the forward hatches.

Nylon sails, even the strongest weights, have no place on jumbo multihulls as the apparent wind is continuously forward of the beam. To save weight on board, no spare sails will be carried. Instead, the crew will have to make repairs underway - on the nets, as these sails are too big to fit into the tiny interior.

The Designers

Forty-year-old Gino Morrelli has been creating multihulls since 1975, gaining worldwide prominence in 1988 as a leading member of Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes catamaran design team. He hooked up with Pete Melvin, four years his junior, in 1992. Pete's background in aerospace engineering and Olympic-level sailboat racing perfectly complemented Morrelli's design skills, and the duo have emerged as one of the most prominent multihull design firms in the world -ironically, they are probably better known in Europe than this country. Located in Newport Beach, they employ five people, and have cranked out 40-some sail and power multihull designs since joining forces.

"PlayStation was a dream project," said Pete. "Steve's request was beautiful in its simplicity - to build him the fastest boat possible for crewed, nonstop, round-the-world racing. We originally looked into concepts for a larger boat, but scaled back a bit to keep within the budget. We also weren't convinced that bigger was necessarily faster, and it certainly would be harder to manage."

After taking into account the possible weather conditions and other demands of round-the-world yacht racing, Morrelli and Melvin juggled literally hundreds of variables - length, weight, hull shapes, etc. - through their catamaran Velocity Prediction Program before settling on the basic parameters of the boat. Once the preliminary drawings were accepted, Cookson Boats was hired to build the boat, and Rhode Islander Peter Wilson, veteran of several America's Cup campaigns, was brought in as project manager.

A company called High Modulus New Zealand provided structural engineering and construction specifications for the hull, cross beams and rudders. Working closely with the designers, builder and Mill Valley finite element analyst Kurt Jordan, the team tried to predict the stresses and strains on various parts of the boat, using computer models to eliminate structural 'hot spots' and reduce weight wherever possible.

"It was a huge engineering feat," noted Melvin. "There have been some monster aluminum cruising multihulls built, but this is the biggest racing multihull ever attempted. We're definitely in new territory here."

The Crew

Steve Fossett, a 54-year-old Chicago-based millionaire, is one of the leading adventurers in the world today. His passion for endurance challenges and setting records has brought him worldwide fame, most recently in the long distance ballooning arena. A keen sportsman, Steve has also swum the English Channel, competed in the Iron Man and other tri-athalons, climbed the highest peaks on six of the seven continents (Everest has eluded him twice), done the 1,165-mile Iditarod dog sled race, driven in the Le Mans and Daytona 24-hour sports-car races, and much more.

With his two other boats - the 60-foot ocean trimaran Lakota (currently in Flor-ida getting ready for the Pineapple Cup) and the 60-foot soft rig catamaran Stars & Stripes (in storage near Detroit) - Fossett has set dozens of sailing records, most of them in the Pacific and along the West Coast. PlayStation, however, promises to be Steve's biggest adventure yet.

Fossett employs three fulltime professional sailors to maintain his growing fleet, and they will all crew on the new boat. Brian Thompson of Great Britain, and Ben Wright of Australia have been with Steve since 1993 and 1994, respectively, and have been along for all the world and race course records on the two previous boats. This duo, both in their mid-30s, will serve as the watch captains on PlayStation. A third professional crew, 27-year-old Mark Callahan of Australia, was hired last summer as Fossett's fleet expanded. One of Mark's claims to fame was sailing on the ill-fated oneAustralia in the '95 America's Cup Trials.

Two Bay Area 'amateurs' (pros with day jobs would be a better description) are also signed up, Peter Hogg and Stan Honey. Hogg, a veteran Kiwi multihuller from Mill Valley, has been associated with Fossett's projects steadily since misplacing his own boat, the Antrim 40 Aotea, in the '95 Doublehanded Farallones Race. The Palo Alto-based Honey, a versatile sailor normally found at the nav table on Pye-wacket, is one of the West Coast's most sought-after navigators. He currently holds every course record to Hawaii (single, double, crewed) except the multi-hull one. This talented duo will provide PlayStation with a strong link to the Bay Area, and we look forward to getting firsthand reports from them as the new boat roams around the world smashing records.

The boat will race with seven or eight crew, but no commitment has been made to anyone for the final spots. Melvin and Morrelli, both accomplished offshore multihull sailors, will likely account for one spot between them, 'platooning' through with an eye towards ongoing design development. Fossett has never been particularly keen on hiring big-name, big-ego rockstars, and will probably just round out his crew with veterans of his previous projects.

One thing's for sure -the PlayStation gang will be splendidly dressed in matching Musto outfits. That English company has signed on as a secondary sponsor, providing foul weather gear and other 'technical clothing' to the project.

The Challenges

As soon as the sea trials are concluded, PlayStation will waste no time assaulting the world's best-known sailing records. Her first mission will be an attempt at breaking Laurent Bourgnon's 540-mile 24 hour record, set on Primigaz in the Atlantic in 1994. To beat that milestone, PlayStation will have to average over 22.5 knots - not a problem if they can attach themselves to a weather front and ride it north from New Zealand towards Indonesia. Another 'shakedown cruise' may involve circumnavigating New Zealand, a record that is ripe for plucking mainly because the course is so punishing and remote that few boats have seriously attempted it.

In March, the boat will be shipped to Philadelphia on the deck of a container ship. Basing out of Newport, RI, PlayStation will ply the waters between the East Coast and Europe, hoping to break both TransAtlantic records before the summer of '99 is over. The time to beat going over is 6 days, 13 hours, 3 minutes, set in 1990 by the 75-foot cat Jet Services V (now Explorer). The return trip record, set by the 60-foot cat Fleury Michon IX in 1988, is a 'soft' 10 days, 9 hours, 15 minutes. A side excursion to the Fastnet Race, which will be well-attended as the 20th anniversary of the tragic '79 edition, is a possibility, if only as an exhibition run. Other 'field trips' may include the Newport-Bermuda Race and around Ireland and/or Britian record attempts.

By December 1999, it will be time to do some real sailing - a TrophÚe Jules Verne 'round the world' attempt. PlaySta-tion will leave France sometime between December and February, basically whenever Bob Rice - or whichever other meteorologist they are working with by then - gives them the green light. When the 90-foot trimaran Sport-Elec set the current record of 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes, they left even later in the year, on March 8, 1997.

The Jules Verne dash will be the dress rehearsal for the boat's raison d'etre -The Race, an historic, no-rules race around the world for unlimited sailing vessels. Starting from a still to-be-determined port (Barcelona, Monaco or Marseilles) on December 31, 2000 - the true millennium - that epic showdown is expected to draw about a dozen of the world's sailing behemoths. PlayStation will have two years and many record-breaking runs under her transoms by then, and will have to be considered one of the favorites. Even the normally reserved Fossett has gone on record for that one, claiming, "We are not planning to come in second."

Currently, 16 challengers have registered for The Race, among them American Cam Lewis. Nine others have "expressed interest," including Fossett, who hasn't been in any hurry to put up the entry fee. Among those currently signed up are three French sailors (Loick Peyron, Lionel PÚan, and Florence Arthaud), two Kiwis (Ross Field and Grant Dalton) and four Brits (Pete Goss, Lawrie Smith, Tracy Edwards, and Tony Bullimore), but it's hard to say this early who is 'real' and who is just making noise. As event sponsor Disneyland Paris firms up more details about The Race - things like prize money and the publicity aspects of the event - the true field will come into focus.

Check out www.therace.org for updates on The Race, as well as more pictures of PlayStation.

We'll bring you the 'breaking news' each month as PlayStation inevitably obliterates every sailing record she pursues. "Failure is not an option," to borrow a line from Apollo 13, and we see no barriers between this boat and sailing greatness. She's got all the 'right stuff' -the right owner and crew, right designer and builder, right sponsor - to become, quite possibly, the most legendary multi-hull of our lifetime.

- latitude/rkm

© 1999 Latitude38