Volvo Ocean Race: Testing the machine
Published on March 17th, 2015
The Southern Ocean, with its relentless weather and waters, tests man and machine like no other location. Volvo Ocean Race leader Ian Walker, skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, spoke with Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck before the start of Leg 5 from New Zealand to Brazil, providing an update on the machine…
During the 2011-12 race, the Southern Ocean leg from New Zealand to Brazil saw four of the six teams suffer significant damage. Any concerns with the Volvo Ocean 65?
We had some pretty exceptional weather leaving Auckland. You expect it to be windy, but I don’t think you expect it to be 40, 50 knots for weeks on end. Although we are now late in the season, so there’s every possibility it could be very, very windy. It’s certainly been very windy for the Barcelona World Race, but I don’t think we’ll see the same problems as we did in the 2011-12 edition.
These boats are a lot stronger, but it is going to be the first real hard test. It’s been pretty light so far, so there are still unknowns, but for sure the boats are a lot stronger. However, we still don’t really know where the red line is. No one’s actually gone past it and broken one of these boats fully. We still have difficult judgments to make on how hard to push, because until you actually go beyond the red line, you don’t know that you’ve pushed too hard.
But the Volvo Ocean 65s have been holding up okay?
I think it’s easy to underestimate how big a task it is to build seven boats of this size that are as one-design as they are. And for sure, there’s things people would do differently on the boats, and there’s lots of things we’ve learnt as we’ve gone along. But what they did do is go to great lengths to protect the sanctity of the one-design. I think if people start questioning the levelness of the boats, it would effectively undermine the whole foundations of the race. And we don’t have that.
So I think in that case, they’ve done a good job. I think they can do a better job right now of measurement and the ongoing work, and maintenance of that. But I think certainly in the first instance, in the build and the launch of the boats, I think they’ve done a very good job.
When the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race launched their new fleet of identical 70-foot boats, failures to the forestay bottlescrews required a dramatic retrofit mid race. If something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way with this one-design format. How big a concern has that been?
Well, there is that risk, isn’t there? That if there’s a problem, there’s a problem for everyone. I guess they had to make sure they did their homework in terms of making sure that there was enough safety margin on everything. We’ve already seen it to a certain extent, like the J1 locks breaking. But fortunately, that’s not a forestay hanger or a keel pin or something more major. It’s something we can manage and hopefully rectify.
Has there been any other breakage areas?
No, not too many. That padeye for Dongfeng on Leg 1 was a really strange one. That should never have broken. I suspect that was damaged hoisting the boat out of the water, or some unusual loading. But obviously, the race organizers didn’t want to take any risks so they redesigned the fitting and now the thing looks like the QE2 back there. Which I guess is a good thing, because it’s dangerous when things like that let go. It’s very dangerous and causes a lot of other damage. So I think that’s the right approach to just make absolutely certain that these things are strong enough.
The biggest discussions right now are probably surrounding the outriggers, which are used to extend outboard the headsail lead position. We’ve broken a few padeyes that hold the strops, which hold the outriggers. And that’s a slightly complex thing, because the angle at which you hold the outriggers has a huge effect on the loading of them. And so different teams are using them in different ways, and I suspect the loads are a bit underestimated. And they’re a new thing.
Outriggers are not a normal thing you have on a boat. I mean, they’re not even allowed under ISAF rules. So there’s a learning curve there. And they’re certainly putting in some extra padeyes, or stronger padeyes, or secondary padeyes to cover that. So they react pretty fast, and are very quick to jump on any potential weaknesses. But thank goodness thus far we haven’t had a Clipper Race type of breakage.
Have the outriggers proven to be a helpful feature?
I think when we first saw them, we were all like, “Oh God, they look like a right hassle,” and, “Do we really need them?” And blah, blah, blah. But I think the more we used them in the training, the more we understood them, and the more we realized what a huge effect they can have on your speed in certain points of sail. So we’re at the point now where I don’t think any of us want to get rid of them, because they make a significant difference to how fast we go. And we all want to get the next stopover as quickly as possible.
So they’ve become a new speed variable?
As an example, very often you’ll want to have a staysail up. Let’s just forget the outriggers for a minute. You want to sail with the staysail. And you’re prepared to maybe sail five degrees lower than your optimum course in order to keep the staysail in, because there’s a jump in performance when you get the staysail in. So you compromise your routing slightly in order to get the staysail in. Well, it can kind of be the same with the outriggers. If you’re outside a certain angle, you can use the outriggers, and that then has a jump in performance, similar to trying sail around the staysail.
So the outrigger definitely makes a difference. I think there is a different level of knowledge and usage of them amongst the teams. The teams that have trained more with them, and we’re definitely in that bracket, probably have a better understanding than other teams. All the reaching in leg four from China really demonstrated this. Up to that point, it’s mainly been light air, lots of downwind, lots of upwind. It’s only this last leg where we started power reaching at all.
How are the sails doing? Are they proving to be sufficiently durable?
I’m continually amazed when I look at the mainsail, what great shape it looks in. I remember two races ago when we had a 3DL mainsail. I remember arriving in India, which was the end of leg two. I remember taking the mainsail down and you literally you couldn’t pull it down without putting your hands through the sail. It was falling apart in your hands as you took it down. Those were in the days when you used three mainsails for a race, and that was only two races ago.
But right now our mainsail looks brand new as we sit here in New Zealand. And we have to do a lot with it. We have to use them for Pro-Am races, In-Port races, and all our training days. It’s not just the actual time sailing either but also all the hoists and drops. Sure, it’s been quite light thus far, but the mainsail looks in great shape. And the other sails, so far so good. But you got to look after them. If you flog the sails when you’re furling or dropping or hoisting then– some teams have had some problems, but I can’t recall any team yet blowing a sail out on a leg, yet. Not as far I can remember. But maybe that’s all ahead of us.
This is Part Two of a three part series with Ian Walker. More to come.
Background: The 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race began in Alicante, Spain on Oct. 11 with the final finish on June 27 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Racing the new one design Volvo Ocean 65, seven teams will be scoring points in 9 offshore legs to determine the overall Volvo Ocean Race winner. Additionally, the teams will compete in 10 In-Port races at each stopover for a separate competition – the Volvo Ocean Race In-Port Series. The fifth leg, from Auckland, NZL to Itajaí, Brazil (6,776 nm), begins March 18 with an ETA in approximately three weeks. Race website.