Ian Walker: It’s not yet about winning, It’s about not losing

Published on March 18th, 2015

The one design format of the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race has created exceedingly close racing, with each of the first four legs having been won now by a different team. Overall 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, sharing his opinions and tactical approach that’s helped them get atop the standings…

Your race strategy thus far has been quite conservative. Is this confidence in your speed or concern of making a mistake?

The plan is to get on the podium in every leg, in the same way that in an Olympic Regatta you try and get in the top four or five in every race. If you can do that, then you put yourself in a position with a day or two to go where you can win the regatta. So my philosophy has been more so to let others lose a leg than try and do anything too smart to try to win it.

So we just chip away, and I think that strategy is fine as long as there’s lots of different contenders. I think as long as it is a strong fleet with different teams in the top three every time, then that’s a strategy that probably would win. That strategy will probably not win if, for instance, it becomes a two or three horse race and everybody is in the top three every time. Then you need to do better than that, and I don’t think we know the answers just yet.

Let’s not forget too how it’s pretty easy to lose this race. You’ve just got to make one mistake. Let the runner go, mast falls down, big tactical error, injuries to crew. There’s lots of ways in which you can lose this race and I guess my philosophy was more a question of don’t lose it rather than trying to win it.

With you and Dongfeng now tied on points, and six points ahead of Brunel in third, when do you think your focus will get a little tighter on just one boat?

I guess we’ve already started to see that a little bit with Dongfeng on the last leg. But I think for everybody getting to Brazil is a threshold. It’s almost like, “Let’s get this race back in the Atlantic and see where we are and if hopefully we’re still in good shape when we get to Brazil,” and then you can work out what your strategy is, because then you start to run out of legs.

You’re basically half way through the race when you go around Cape Horn. So it’s really, get it back to Atlantic, see where we lie and then revise our strategy from there. But try not to lose the race before you’re back in the Atlantic.

In the 2011-12 race you had four-hour skeds and restricted Automatic Identification System (AIS) and this race has six-hour skeds but with fully-operable AIS. How have you found yourself reacting to this difference?

Six hours is a long time. When you’re going 20 knots and you’re on opposite tacks, you can end up a long way from people very quickly. I mean we lost leg two because we were at 14 miles to windward of Brunel and Dongfeng, and they put the bow down for that whole six hour sked and we didn’t realize it.

So if you’re 10 degrees lower doing 20 knots for 6 hours, you’ll probably get nearly 20 miles more separation. It’s just a long time. Even if someone sails five degrees lower and faster than you and you don’t know it, for six hours, you can do untold damage. But it is what it is.

But with that said, I’m sort of in favor of the longer sked. It reduces the work in the navigation station slightly. When you’re behind, you’re in favor of it, and when you’re winning, you’re not in favor of it, because it increases the chance of you losing control. I guess the longer sked is a good thing to allow people to make some tactical moves.

Regarding AIS, there’s been a huge debate about it. I’ve always have been a little bit anti-it, I think it’s just another thing in the Nav station. It’s another de-skilling of the sailor’s role, if you like. No longer do you sit there with hand-bearing compasses trying to work out who’s pulling bearing on you. Especially at night, trying to work out where the breeze is best through that, you just look at the AIS computer screen.

AIS tells you what speed people are doing and what angle they’re doing and you can be very quick to react. Especially at night when someone gets more wind, you see it instantly and you can get over there. It turns the sailing into a sort of massive two boat testing run, with a lot of accuracy.

I think it also drives you nuts on board, because you can get obsessed with it. You find yourself sitting there going, “Oh they going too fast or are now two degrees higher,” and you’re looking at the computer screen and you’re trying to re-trim, but then you have to remind yourself, “They’re eight miles away from me. They could be gone the opposite tack.”

So as time goes on we’re increasingly looking at the longer term AIS averages just so we don’t drive ourselves nuts. We used to look at it constantly and then we used to look at the two minute average. Now we don’t look at anything other than the 10 minute average, just to try and calm down a bit.

What have you found to be the AIS range between boats?

It really depends but ten miles is the average. We sometimes pick people up to eleven, eleven and a half miles I’ve even seen. I’ve seen eve a flash of somebody 12 miles away. It depends on how good somebody’s VHF aerial is. Some boats are stronger than others. I know Alvimedica for instance on the leg to China had a bit of a problem. We couldn’t see them if they were more than four miles away. But in broad terms its 10 miles.

I suspect there can be strategic uses of the AIS range.

Well, sometimes it’s not advantageous to be in the lead. You imagine, particularly with all the coastal sailing we’ve done. You come into a headland. You can instantly see whether the boat ahead has slowed down, what heading they’re doing, therefore you can work out what wind direction they’ve likely got, you can then alter course and go around the outside of them or whatever. It gives you a pretty strong insight.

With regard to the range, we talked about it in the last leg when we were behind Dongfeng. We said, “Well, if we’re five miles behind them, we’re never going to overtake them. Because every time we alter course, they’ll alter course with us.” We said, “If you were 12 miles behind they wouldn’t be able to see you, and then you can actually do something.” So I sort of jokingly said, “Maybe we should slow down, so that they can’t see us.”

With hindsight on leg 2, when we were about 14 miles to windward of Dongfeng and Brunel going into the northern doldrums, we should’ve reached down and got into range so we could have matched them. But instead they were out of range, and they slipped away from us. So, yeah, I think it is definitely a tactical consideration.

The safety aspect of AIS must be comforting.

If you ignore the sailing and the AIS between each other, safety-wise it is outstanding. Every single ship you come across you can work out very quickly whether you’re on a collision course. If you are on a collision course, you know the name of the ship, you can radio them, you can identify yourself, they can see who you are, you can ask them to alter course a little bit for you.

Before, it was like, “Big ship, big ship, this is Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing,” and you get some Filipino who don’t know what you’re talking about. Now you can be much more specific with the name and the vessel. So I think safety-wise, it’s a huge step forward for the marine industry. And it’s not to speak about things like man overboard as well and being able to pick up people in the water with AIS units.

Last race we had the AIS, and we used it to receive but we didn’t transmit. We only transmitted in busy shipping areas, like Singapore Straits and the English Channel. I don’t think there’s any going back. It is what it is.

Funnily enough, in the last race, which was won overall by Franck Cammas’ Groupama 4 team, their AIS was transmitting during the race without them realizing the switch was wrong. So all the while we could see them, all the other competitors could see them, and they never knew. We had a deal with the other teams that we wouldn’t let them know, so nobody told them, and it wasn’t until were about two thirds of the way through the race before they realized [chuckles].

This is Part Three of a three part series with Ian Walker.

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), began March 18 with an ETA in approximately three weeks. Race website.

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