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Lessons from the Volvo Ocean Race

Team News Corp (foreground), the eventual Leg Six winner, maintains a small but decisive lead over Amer Sports One and Assa Abloy heading toward the finish.
As the eight teams rest and debrief from one of the shortest but most tactically intense legs of the Volvo Ocean Race—Leg Six from Miami to Baltimore—now seems a particularly good time to consider some important lessons distilled from their experiences. Why? Because some of what can be gleaned has the potential to benefit all coastal racers and cruisers. This 875-mile leg produced many of the same elements that might be encountered by any of the hundreds of sailing craft which will be making this journey over the next month or so as the sailing community makes its annual migration north for the summer season. What the VOR competitors encountered over this span of ocean also provides a unique example of the kind of sailing that mariners can expect when a trip involves both offshore and inshore sailing.

First, the overall weather pattern of a prominent high positioned north of Bermuda is a typical scenario, resulting in moderate easterlies and southeasterlies, veering gradually to the southwest and west once north of Cape Hatteras. Tactically it would be fastest to ride the lifting breeze on starboard jibe for a while, and then jibe onto port early in expectation of getting gradually headed as you travel north. This would be especially important in the dying breezes associated with the high-pressure ridge, where on port jibe you could keep your speed up while getting headed toward the Cape.

The predicted light air and downwind sailing meant that the VOR teams could easily opt to stow fewer extra sails on board and less equipment, lightening their loads by as much as 1,000 pounds in the case of Grant Dalton's Amer Sports One.

But the other important factor to consider over this course is the Gulf Stream, which at its peak can give a northerly push of up to 80 miles per day. The problem is that the Stream is generally strongest on its west wall, where it can reach four knots in strength, yet by following the strategy outlined above you would stray east to current strengths of only two knots or even less. And the Stream also meanders slightly west of the rhumb line, making an easterly track shorter in distance. Doing that is how Brunel Synergy won this same leg in 1998, gaining over 100 miles in a come-from-behind move.

John Kostecki's illbruck team opted for two navigators on this short but tactically demanding leg. The boat led for most of the leg, but not at the finish.
Given these factors, how would you decide which route to take? This is precisely the question demanded of the teams' navigators and tacticians on this recent leg. That dilemma combined with the tactical difficulties posed by transiting the Chesapeake Bay prompted illbruck to have not one but two navigators—Juan Vila and Ian Moore—on board for this leg.

The routes of the eight boats in the current race seemed to reveal three distinct schools of thought on how to get around Cape Hatteras and enter the mouth of the Chesapeake:

1. On the all-women's team aboard Amer Sports Too, their early break to the east was an attempt to sail fast toward the predicted right shift while staying closer to the rhumb line. Skipper Lisa MacDonald said after finishing: "We got the latest weather we possibly could, about an hour before we knew we had to make the decision, and it said that it might be a bit of a calculated risk, so we took the gamble. It didn't go so right the first day, but we had committed ourselves." Being last in the standings, Amer Sports Too could afford to make such gambles, and even though it didn't pay off, they still battled hard until the finish.

"Being last in the standings, Amer Sports Too could afford to make such gambles, and even though it didn't pay off, they still battled hard until the finish. "
2. The second school was attended by Tyco, djuice, and SEB, who elected to try and stray west of rhumb to stay in the strongest current of the Stream. The problem with this strategy was that while the current reached up to four knots in pace, the warmer water can often generate some nasty clouds and squalls that can suck all the breeze away and leave a boat parked for hours. This is precisely what happened to Tyco, whose skipper Kevin Shoebridge illustrated the danger of clouds. "We were positioned in the Stream where we wanted to be, and life wasn't too bad, and then a black cloud rolled through that everyone saw, we got stuck underneath it with SEB, with torrential rain for two or three hours, which didn't move, and that was 15 miles lost. If you get five miles behind you're history [in this fleet], and here we were 15 miles behind on the first morning!"

3. The last school favored an in-between course taken by the four front-runners in the leg, Team News Corp, ASSA ABLOY, illbruck, and Amer Sports One. This group strayed east of the main axis of the Stream, giving up a little current, but staying out of the clouds, sailing slightly shorter distance, and getting good position for the light air and right shift north of the ridge axis.

Once into the Chesapeake, however, the expected southwesterlies turned very light indeed as a weak trough developed, which caused the breeze to shift even farther into the northwest. With water temperatures still in the high 50s and low 60s, and air temperatures reaching into the 90s, the situation was a classic one of wind shear encountered by all early-season sailors. The cold dense air close to the water surface is unable to be moved by the warm and humid air of significantly lower density. This difference causes the irregular patchwork of breeze—visible where the two air masses manage to mix and leaving only a glassy appearance to the water where they do not.

There was plenty of breeze at the start of Leg Six in Miami (above), but once the boat's arrived in the Chesapeake, the wind did its customary fade.

In fact, during these conditions, most air movement is unseen and occurs aloft, making it especially hard in close tactical situations. illbruck's meteorologist Chris Bedford summarized the Bay weather as follows: "On the western shore, a weak easterly sea breeze developed while on the eastern shore, a westerly sea breeze enhanced the general west and southwesterly flow. This favored the eastern shore for a time, especially in the morning. These opposing winds left the middle of the bay with light and variable winds for much of the daylight hours. A southerly breeze eventually developed over the bay giving the boats a push through the late afternoon and evening hours, only to die out after sunset bringing a return to light and variable conditions everywhere."

Coming into the Bay the fleet had split into two groups, with the lead group of Team News Corp, Amer Sports One, illbruck, and ASSA ABLOY fighting each other for each zephyr, followed several hours later by Tyco, djuice, and Amer Sports Too. SEB managed to stay between both groups, though at times they were tantalizingly close to the leaders. "We had been doing extremely well the whole day, gaining mile after mile and we were finally pretty close to illbruck," said Olympic medallist Mark Reynolds, who had joined SEB for this leg. "Then the wind completely disappeared for us and we got stuck the same time as News Corp got new breeze. Very, very frustrating for us." SEB Skipper Gurra Krantz summarized it best by saying "Sailing is a tough sport mentally and sometimes it hurts."

Some of this hurt comes across clearly in an e-mail from Tyco navigator Steve Hayles. "Time and again this leg has dealt us a harsh blow and today has been a series of difficult situations. Firstly we wallowed around outside the Bay in between the slow building sea breeze and the old gradient wind and lost 20 miles to everyone. Having just (and I mean only just) fought off the Norwegians [djuice dragons] and the girls [Amer Sports Too] as we entered the Bay, we opened up a small but comfortable lead until the breeze completely shut down again and left us in a close light air jibing duel with djuice. We crossed them by no more than 100 yards on two occasions before finally we managed to wriggle away.

" It's been a long night already and the remaining hours will get no easier. I can't wait to see the finish line, that is for sure."

"We held them and the girls at bay (still only one mile behind though) until just about 20 minutes ago when another complete shutdown left us in a complete vacuum. djuice got badly hit too, but the girls got to within 50 meters of passing us after having found more breeze. We are still just in front of the two of them, but knowing the leaders have finished and we have still got 50 miles of very tricky and unpredictable racing to do is hard on the mind. It's been a long night already and the remaining hours will get no easier. I can't wait to see the finish line, that is for sure."

Maintaining a lead can be tough going in these conditions, even in a body of water as narrow as the Chesapeake appears to a VO 60, which draws 13 feet. (Roughly 80 percent of the Bay is less than 10 feet deep!) En route, navigator Nick White on the eventual Leg Six winner News Corp wrote in an e-mail: "The channel is narrowing about us, which is good and bad. Good because it means the boats behind have to follow and the closer we get to the finish, the safer our position gets. Bad because if we stray outside the channel we are likely to run aground. We have a bad feeling there are going to be tacks coming up and they are not simple things in these boats."

As if those circumstances weren't demanding enough by themselves, there's a final variable to consider when sailing in the Bay—wind-driven current. Though this feature wasn't relevant for the fleet's arrival this year, it was a huge factor in the re-start of this event from Annapolis four years ago. Because this waterway is so shallow, the currents are often more influenced by the wind direction and speed than by lunar cycles. Four years ago, while live commentators on ESPN predicted the fleet to be "swept south on a strong ebb tide," there were two knots of current moving in the opposite direction at the start. Contrary to the printed tide tables, a north-flowing current occurred when water that had been blown south by the previous week's strong northerly breezes rebounded up the Bay!

It's still too early to tell what will happen when Leg Seven from Annapolis to La Rochelle, France, starts on April 28, but you can be sure that all of the team strategists will be looking carefully at the regional weather throughout the week. Whether their individual routing plans for a fast exit out of the Bay pay off will be an important factor for success on the coming leg. But beyond the Bay lie more than 3,000 miles of ocean sailing, so it's still anyone's game.

VOR Fallout

It's a wrap. ESPN commentator Gary Jobson (in the water) awaits his next ride after jumping off Assa Abloy before the start in Miami.
Find yourself over-scheduled or under-funded and just can't get to Annapolis or Baltimore to see the VOR players and their boats in person? Don't despair, there are other avenues for catching the action in this exciting world-girdling event.

  • A variety of television networks have been offering some coverage of the VOR, including Fox, ABC, NBC, CNN, and the Weather Channel, and ESPN2 has been following the activities with regular broadcasts, admittedly on a delayed schedule. Their next broadcast, a recap of Leg Six, will air Sunday, April 28, at 3:00 p.m. EDT. The network also plans to rerun their program on Leg Five of the race on Wednesday, May 1, at 2:00 p.m. EDT. You can also read short news reports of the race on the ESPN website: http://espn.go.com/moresports/news/2002.

  • Also, the good folks at the National Geographic have put up an interesting website dedicated explaining various elements of ocean racing via the VOR, mostly for a non-sailing audience. Experienced sailors can still glean a few things from it, including details about handling medical emergencies at sea. Have a look at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/volvooceanrace.

  • And National Public Radio ran an interesting five minute segment on the race on Wednesday, April 17, as the boats approached Baltimore. You can log on and listen to that segment at www.npr.org/ramfiles/me/20020417.me.12.ram.

  • Suggested Reading:

    Thrills and Spills in the Hemingway Cup by Dobbs Davis

    Weather for Round the World Sailing by Michael Carr

    Life in the Danger Zone by SailNet

    SailNet Store Section: Chart Tools and Chart Accessories

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