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Both Richards and Graham learned from those epic battles on the Florida lagoon, and when they got back to Cowes last March, they started work on Illusion. The money, such as it was, flowed from the sale of a Chevy sports van that the owner of Recession had donated to the duo as a reward for the hard work they put into his boat.
Cowes is a pleasant and settled place, lying 20 minutes from the mainland by hydrofoil. Its brick houses bear names that are solidly English or resolutely nautical—Old Priory, Topsides, Hardwicke, Stormalong. It's yachting-mad and has been for decades. Every second shop sells something nautical, whether life jackets or antique navigation lamps, and many pubs have interiors decorated to resemble ship cabins. But even Cowes was astonished at Illusion. Although Richards and Graham tried to keep the project quiet, those who did scent what was going on either didn't believe them ("They thought we were pulling their legs," said Richards) or made polite but dismissive noises. It was all accomplished within about three months, March to June, although the work on Illusion was, frequently interrupted; her builders took time out to race or to deliver yachts or just to mess about in boats.
From the start the aim was to produce a genuine sailing yacht, not an eccentricity. "It is not a toy," says Richards firmly. Indeed, everything on Illusion works. The mast, for example, has two sets of spreaders and can be raked fore and aft or bent to stretch the sail for different wind strengths. There are enough controls in the cockpit to amuse even the most technically minded skipper. Altogether, Illusion has nine adjustments that the skipper must constantly make. The genoa is made of Mylar, the fabric used successfully in the last America's Cup challenge. The ballast—small sandbags placed above the keel—is removable so that skippers can increase or reduce it according to their body weight.
It is important to note that Illusion isn't a replica of an America's Cup yacht, because a precisely scaled-down version wouldn't work. She is, however, as faithful as possible to the 12-meter look. The designers' aim, in short, was to get Illusion to work and look as much like an America's Cupper as possible. "We fiddled the esthetics a bit," says Richards.
Sailing Illusion is one of the sport's unique experiences. Her skipper doesn't climb aboard so much as wriggle inside, going feetfirst, as though squeezing into a Grand Prix car. Once installed, he lies supine along the top of the keel with half his body below water level. When he ducks, there's just room for his head to clear the boom as it swings across in a jibe or tack. At first, the novelty of sailing Illusion can be rather unsettling. Gusts whistle across the water at eye level, spitting water straight in your face. As the wind hits Illusion's sails, she heels sharply. My God, she's going to capsize! A dollop of cold Solent spray hops into the cockpit. But like a true narrow-beamed America's Cup boat. Illusion suddenly stiffens as the weight in the keel counterbalances the pressure of the gust of wind on the rig.
At a thought-provoking angle of about 45 degrees, with the skipper's ear an inch or two from the water. Illusion bashes along happily. A little foot pressure on the steering bar feathers her nicely into the wind. That's comforting. In a big gust you "throw" the mainsheet to spill wind from the mainsail. After a while you relax. Illusion won't sink or capsize. And it's so comfortable, which is perhaps the most disorienting part of all. Sailing, whether hiking out in a dinghy or clinging to a yacht's windward rail, is supposed to hurt.
When tacking, Illusion steers across the wind like a true yacht instead of spinning around like a dinghy, though making the adjustments can be like playing all the instruments of an orchestra almost simultaneously. Uncleat the windward genoa sheet, haul in the leeward one, tighten the windward runner. Oh, yes, remember to keep foot pressure on the steering or Illusion will stop head to wind, sails flapping, and start to drift backward. Don't forget to duck as the boom swings across.
The pinnacle of achievement is flying the boat's 45-square-foot spinnaker. First ease the leeward runner and bear away before the wind, ease the mainsheet, ease the genoa sheet, hook the guy into one end of the spinnaker, then attach the pole to the tack of the spinnaker and the base of the mast, and toss the spinnaker cloth in the air while hauling on the halyard. Now you should be in business—but you aren't. The spinnaker halyard has snarled on the shroud. Try again. Still snarled. And again.
Even without the spinnaker, Illusion slices joyously downwind, leaving a trail of astonished yachtsmen whose reactions run the gamut of incredulity. Most simply stand speechless as an apparently head-powered yacht pops up alongside. Others rouse themselves to comment. "I don't believe it; I just don't believe it!" muttered one skipper to his crew. Another noted gravely, "I'd be careful if I were you. There's a 60-foot dinghy around the corner."
Objects on the seaway loom in a menacing manner. A three-foot-high buoy becomes a lighthouse. A 30-foot cruiser is the QE 2. You're in a different world, a silent, private one, a mouse among the elephants, a Lilliputian among the Brobdingnagians.