Extreme 40 catamarans are the Formula One of yachting. David Pugh went on board Holmatro for an insider's look

“If the hull starts to fly, luff immediately to control it,” said Johnny Hutchcroft, our skipper for a morning’s sailing on board Extreme 40 Holmatro at Skandia Cowes Week. I could feel what he meant through the long tiller extension – the ultra-light helm of these racing catamarans is like the throttle on a sports car. Bear away slightly, and the boat accelerates breathtakingly quickly.

The Extreme 40 class has become the playground of the top names in yachting, and with Cowes hosting the third round of the coveted iShares Cup the racing was never going to be friendly. America’s Cup victors Alinghi, who also took top position at Cowes, clearly think that it’s worth having some serious catamaran training ready for the next Cup, and judging by the two teams fielded by BMW Oracle and the entrant from Britain’s Team Origin, there are others who think the same.

All the boats are heavily sponsored and frequently take guests sailing before the racing, tempered with the odd lucky journalist. There’s also a ‘fifth man’ position on the boat while racing, but with yesterday’s breeze up at around 25 knots, the organisers decided that the day should be sailed by professionals. I, for one, wasn’t sorry given later events.

The first race was relatively uneventful, although there’s always an irresistible feeling of excitement watching these boats race. They hang back from the line until a few seconds before the start, often almost hove-to with the top of the fully-battened main backed and the jib luffing. Then, as the time approaches, a slight bear away has the fleet racing towards the line like a pack of hungry wolves.

The next two races really demonstrated why Hutchcroft has been so determined that we should stay close on the wind when allowed to sail the boat. As the fleet bore away around the windward mark on each race, the acceleration was amazing. For two boats it proved too much, as in successive races JP Morgan and one of the BMW Oracle boats buried their leeward bows in terrifying pitchpoles. For JP Morgan it was the end of the race, as once these boats turn turtle it takes a long time to right them. BMW Oracle fared better thanks to the rapid response of the support RIBs, which managed to right the boat before she fully inverted.

Sailing like this is a far cry from anything most of us usually experience, but it’s incredible to witness just how much can be derived from the wind with the right technology. These boats sail well above the wind speed – they can sail at up to 25 knots in 15 knots’ breeze, and have recorded speeds of 40 knots. Inevitably the forces are tremendous, which explains hydraulics specialist Holmatro’s involvement. All the boats are using their equipment, with even the mainsheet controlled by a hydraulic piston. Not quite cruising gear, but then at one time no-one would have considered putting a turbocharger on a normal car. Making the most of the power available is what ongoing development is all about, and often you only need to look at the present to understand the future.