True, we have been treated to incredible performances by the leaders and in particular Team ABN AMRO (NED); both boats are deserving of mention. Mike SANDERSON's (NZL) phoenix-like rise from zero to hero after the lacklustre In-Port race in Sanxenxo, Spain morphed, almost seamlessly, first into fleet leader and then World Record holder (subject to World Sailing Speed Record Council ratification) last weekend. The design of ABN AMRO ONE and TWO is quite different to the three Farr boats. Their significantly more powerful hull lines with wide beams flowing through to wide transoms means they are very fast power reaching. The downside would be in light wind conditions, which we saw to some extent in the first In-Port race.
Seb JOSSE (FRA) on the second ABN AMRO boat has roundly silenced the naysayers who previously questioned his team's youth and apparent lack of experience on these ocean greyhounds. As early fleet leader he has had to be content with playing catch up on SANDERSON in second place, but two weeks ago would anyone have called this performance outcome?
Yet the Southern Ocean beckons barely one month from now and the experiences both movistar (ESP) and Pirates of the Caribbean (USA) encountered during the storm of the first night at sea cannot but have struck a nervous chord throughout the remainder of the fleet.
So, expect a rush for the travel hoist and the sound of angle-grinders around the docks close to the famous V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa as every boat is stripped, in some cases rebuilt, checked and tested. It is worth noting that previous Volvo 60 footers were effectively rebuilt in the Cape Town stopover when so much was learnt in that first leg.
What befell movistar and Pirates may have seemed disastrous, but there is some upside. While tough on morale, there was huge encouragement for these crews who were met by sponsors and shore teams, all fully committed to getting on with the race. This was extremely encouraging. Morale is such a fragile thing. Any lack of belief and momentum can deteriorate so quickly.
Several issues are clearly emerging from these incidents all of which present more questions than solutions.
Firstly, the bottom line with the Volvo Open 70's is that they simply cannot be built strong enough: they WILL break. The challenge for the crews is how hard can they push these projectiles?
The reality is that every kilo of weight saved in the hull and rig has been added to the canting keel bulb, leading to enormous power to weight ratios; power ratios never seen in ocean racing yachts before. In hindsight, a minimum hull weight in the VO70 rule may have been prudent.
So that leads to the second significant development and in the months and weeks leading up to the start of the race many crews were openly predicting this. The issue now is when crews should back off on pushing their boat to their limit.
Weighing up this balancing act has parallels to Formula 1 motor sport where drivers are having to hold back from using full power for fear of breaking their cars or engines completely.
It is certain that Cape Town will be a busy port, with retro-fits across the fleet, with close attention being paid to the canting keel systems on each boat and how they are integrated into the hull. The transmitted forces are enormous. It is always difficult to calculate maximum loads and dial in adequate safety factors, but the combination of unforgiving carbon fibre structures and the enormity of ocean wave formations makes the exercise almost impossible. Trying to figure out what forces are unleashed when a carbon structure is dropped off a five story building could be an equivalent exercise! The bottom line is if these boats were built strong enough to NEVER break, they would not be light enough to be competitive. It is back to maximizing power to weight ratios.
When oneAustralia sank in the 1995 America's Cup Challenger series, we had a boat designed and built for optimized conditions of eight to 14 knots. But a 23 knot breeze combined with a difficult seaway (and wave frequency) led to huge compression loads transmitted into the carbon hull via our running backstays. The deck buckled (creased) and the hull ripped open like a tin can as our boat sank within minutes. On that same day, America3 lost her rig and Denis CONNER's (USA) Stars and Stripes had major keel problems. Was the boat strong enough...no, not for those conditions. But the America's Cup racing off San Diego never saw conditions like that day again. In hindsight we just did not know when to back off!
Early in 2006, seven VO70's will dive south for the roaring forties and will be out of range of any outside assistance.
As I have mentioned previously, our sport is unique in that emergencies are shared experiences and though all ended in safety for movistar and Pirates off Portugal, leg two will not have landfall as conveniently located.
Already, teams are sharing key information on likely problems, setting aside competitive differences. There can be nobody in this race who would wish a serious gear failure on any rival entry in the icy wastes to the north of Antarctica. While legendary rescues abound, it is the stories of those who do not come home which are uppermost in everyone's minds. In as much as this race is about pushing limits, the crews are already finding that this competition is about knowing when the maximum has been reached and then backing off from it.
But secrecy remains an essential element of delivering a winning edge. The cu off point on information sharing between teams will remain, but if it is a life-threatening issue, the information is passed around.
Extracting comfort for the two retired boats seems pointless, but they can take heart from the knowledge that their rationed sail wardrobe for the race is largely intact. Apart from 24 hours' use. Small comfort now, but UV degradation is as effective as flogging when is comes to wear and tear so one could say a small advantage has been gained by Bouwe BEKKING (NED) and Paul CAYARD (USA).
Grant WHARRINGTON (AUS) on Sunergy and Friends (AUS) have made a gain, picking up points for a leg in which they have no nearby competition. Without needing to push the limits of their boat's endurance, leg one is proving a very useful work up passage for these largely newcomers to this VO70. With up to 7,000 miles to be sailed on this leg alone, this places the Australian boat at an advantage over CAYARD's Pirates who were late to the game themselves.
As for the performance of the others still at sea, there has been little opportunity for major tactical gains. So far, its been the leader playing pathfinder and with the fleet all receiving the same weather data from Race HQ, there is little doubt that the onboard software appears to be evenly matched for producing tactical solutions.
Only double Olympic gold medallist Torben GRAEL (BRA) has displayed any nerve in trying an alternative when Brasil 1 broke away from the hunt southwards in the search for breeze, a move that paid dividends until SANDERSON and JOSSE kicked into gear once more. Otherwise, this stage has been conservatively sailed with no flyers and risks limited to pushing the boats for maximum speed.
The true test between skipper and navigator has yet to come though. This working relationship is key for this endurance event. The navigators are under enormous pressure to correctly interpret the large amount of weather data coming onto the boats and lay out the tactical scenarios for debate.
When things are going well, great, little pressure. When tactics go pear shaped, all that hard work by the sailing team is wasted. The true test then always gets back to when the going gets tough. The synergy and trust between the decision making team of skipper and navigator as a result is always under the microscope. You live or die on tactical decisions so any wrong call can spread like a cancer to the rest of the crew. The crews accept that not all right calls will be made, mistakes will happen, but it eventually gets down to Team with a capital T! They are all in it together. With all this pressure we have seen crew meltdowns in the past. They will happen in the future.
As the main pack have yet to open up more than a few hours from one another, such outcomes are unlikely to be seen before the longer deep ocean legs. Over the last two weeks, we have seen the opening salvos of the event. There is little doubting the power of the ABN AMRO boats. But this event is living up to its billing, promising racing on the extremes. Semi airborne at times, they are more like 18 foot skiffs than ocean racers.
Plenty of action to come…
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