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Old 05-02-2002
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
More Lessons from the Volvo Ocean Race


Grueling conditions in the VOR have led to the development of specific gear innovations and techniques that eventually trickle down to rank-and-file ocean sailors. Above, two crew aboard illbruck grind for the trimmers to keep the German 60-footer moving at a torrid pace.
Whether it’s firsthand or reported by keen observers, there’s no better teacher than experience. Thanks to the Internet, we have much informative (and entertaining) news from sea direct from sailors who have been racing in the grueling Volvo Ocean Race around the world. With their high speeds, stripped-out interiors, crews of 12 professionals, and $15,000 electronics packages, Volvo 60s may seem like a whole dissimilar breed of vessel from the average cruiser-racer, but fundamentally they’re no different. Every crew hoists sails one at a time and navigates in the same ancient, sometimes risky interface between water and air.

Here are a few lessons-confirmed and lessons-learned from the first six legs of the Volvo Race, most of them conveyed by the race’s website, but a few passed on by my friend and shipmate Chris Huntington who sailed aboard one of the spare boats during the Miami-Baltimore leg.

First, have a decent vessel. In that regard the preamble to the Volvo 60 Rule could not be more clear: "The need for safety and self-sufficiency is paramount. The Rule is intended to foster gradual design development leading to easily driven, seaworthy boats of high stability, requiring moderate crew numbers." As quick and demanding as these boats may be, they’re not inherently dangerous, like the weird, dinghy-like 60-footers that single-handers used to sail. Under the Rule, the range of positive stability—the heel angle at which a boat will still pop back upright—has to be at least 142 degrees, which is extremely high for any boat. Hulls must be built of Kevlar, which is more impact-resistant than carbon fiber (carbon is used in spars, however). There has to be a breakaway bow in case of a head-on collision, and each boat has four watertight bulkheads to allow the crew to isolate bad leaks around the rudder post, the bow, and areas in between.

Take good pumps. Water is a constant shipmate when these boats are at speed. "Brother, is it wet," reported one of the most experienced sailors, Grant Dalton, skipper of Amer Sports One, from the Southern Ocean. "It would be impossible for the boat to be any wetter. We bail it (literally) every two hours maximum and the water just pours over the deck. This is not your average heavy spray, more walls of white water which eventually penetrate through everything and through all of this the boat continues to thunder along, now under small spinnaker in a confused sea."


Don't try this at home; Jan Dekker deploys a weed stick to clear Team Tyco's keel in the middle of the Pacific.
Prepare for emergencies.
With such forces, it would be irresponsible not to plan for emergencies. "It is as safe as you're going to get without making it impossible to sail the boats," Andy Hindley, the Volvo Ocean Race's Yacht Equipment and Racing Manager, told Mad for Sailing. The race’s long list of required safety gear was developed from the Offshore Special Regulations, the international standards for racing monohulls and multihulls. (A valuable guide for anybody heading out there, the Special Regs are available from the US Sailing Association for $15, $10 for members, at www.ussailing.org/safety.)

The Volvo Rule sometimes is more demanding even than the Special Regs. Each boat must have two 12-person liferafts painted orange—top and bottom—to improve their visibility from aircraft, plus two survival packs (each with an ACR PathFinder2 search-and-rescue transponder, whose signal can be read on rescuers’ radar screens). Every boat carries five emergency beacons, and each sailor wears a McMurdo Guardian crew-overboard beacon—a device so compact that it’s built into a wristwatch. Chris Huntington tells me that every boat also carries on the stern a crew-overboard canister that, when it’s tossed in, emits a light for two hours and smoke for 15 minutes.

Secure your gear. In hard going soon after the start, illbruck’s sewing machine for repairing sails flew off its mounts and severed an intake hose above the seacock. The resulting leak was characterized by one crew member as "a miniature Trevi Fountain in the forepeak." The hole was quickly plugged with a pine plug.

"Even these aggressive crews nurse their boats a little....'The sea state is the biggest factor in riding out a gale and this sea is very nasty indeed.'"
Adapt to the conditions.
So much for hardware, now let’s look at seamanship. Even these aggressive crews nurse their boats a little. "The sea state is the biggest factor in riding out a gale and this sea is very nasty indeed," Team Tyco reported from the middle of a blow. "It has no uniform pattern and since we have just moved into the dark hours, the helmsman has an even harder time of steering a smooth course through the waves. He is not driving for maximum speed right now, but to balance our heading with a reasonable speed without stressing the boat too much."

Hook on. "We had need of every finger God had given us," Richard Henry Dana, Jr., wrote in Two Years before the Mast about a trip aloft in a square rigger near Cape Horn. More than 160 years later, djuice dragons skipper Knut Frostad said as much in an e-mail, referring to one crucial piece of gear that provides not just an extra finger but an entire third hand. Everybody in the Volvo Race has a safety harness integral with an auto-inflating PFD. One day Frostad reported, "Changing headsails in more than 40 knots is probably the most difficult and dangerous change we have. Six guys hooked on with safety lines on the bow, trying to pull down and in the old jib. The boat is still logging up to 20 knots and suddenly a wave washes the bow, pushing the six big guys back at high speed. Then they crawl forward and start all over again pulling the jib in. Soaking wet, but still smiling, we crawl back together in the cockpit."

Be self-sufficient. Four boats lost rudders and one was dismasted, and all made their own way to port. The rudder failures were pretty typical: two broken rudder stocks, one failed lower bearing, and a blade that disintegrated after it was hit hard by some ice. Those boats made it to port under transom-hung emergency rudders that were required by the rules.


When SEB was dismasted well west of Cape Horn, the crew wasted no time in erecting a jury-rigged mast and got their boat safely to Rio de Janeiro in time to rejoin the race.

The dismasting occurred one night 1,250 miles west of Cape Horn. While surfing under spinnaker at a speed of 25 knots—that’s boat speed—Team SEB was hit by an abrupt wind shift in a snow squall. She broached to leeward, jibed, and was heaved over on her side, dragging the mast in the water until it broke off just above the boom. The crew cleared away the rigging mess with bolt cutters. They carefully did not turn on the engine until after dawn, when there was enough light to allow a careful inspection to check that nothing fouled the propeller. A jury rig got her to port.

And again I say, Hook on! In another wild broach, ASSA ABLOY was thrown onto her side. Richard Mason later reminisced about what he called "a heart-stopping moment": "Saw the wave coming, grabbed hold of the grinder pedestal, only to be ripped off, washed over the main sheet through the stacking gear and get pinned under the water. If I hadn't been clipped on I wouldn't be writing this. Stu Wilson, who was also on deck at the time, ended up in the water with me. He had only been clipped on by another crew member seconds earlier....Incidentally, the spinnaker stayed set through the whole wipe out, we popped up and surfed away as if nothing had happened. I can assure you that there were a few knees knocking around the boat after the incident."

Expect discomfort. Many of these extremely experienced pros were surprised by seasickness. "I haven't been seasick for years, but in the first leg I came down badly in the Bay of Biscay," Emma Westmacott wrote in from the women’s boat, Amer Sports Too. "It's a feeling that you just want to jump off the side of the boat and end it all. It's miserable, you don't feel like doing anything, you get lethargic and you get tired....It is just an ever-decreasing circle. It is something that you have to combat early or accept the fact that you have a problem with it." And hang on.

"As the wind accelerated to 65 knots in a matter of seconds, even extremely experienced sailors were intimidated. 'We had a helpless feeling...'"
Anticipate humility. When a waterspout meandered through the fleet in the Sydney-Hobart Race, a leg in the Volvo Race, according to skipper Gurra Krantz of Team SEB, "It looked like a gigantic vacuum cleaner coming down to suck away all the tiny boats littering the water." As the wind accelerated to 65 knots in a matter of seconds, even extremely experienced sailors were intimidated. "We had a helpless feeling where this freak of nature was chasing us down," said illbruck’s skipper, John Kostecki, who after several frustrated evasive maneuvers succeeded in avoiding the spout by only 200 yards.

Be ready for medical problems. The race rules required boats to carry at least two trained medics, and they were backed up by a shoreside team of doctors providing advice over the radio and Internet. The system worked. On Leg Two, an onboard medic, Dr. Roger Nilson of Amer Sports One, diagnosed what had first appeared to be a shipmate’s case of indigestion as an intestinal blockage and arranged to have Keith Kilpatrick airlifted off the boat.

Otherwise, bodily battering was constant. "The human is the vulnerable part of these boats now, not the boat itself," said Grant Dalton, who hurt his back in a fall. News Corp’s syndicate head Ross Field reported, "Every crew on every boat has got injuries. It is the most injuries I’ve seen. On our boat there are guys with sprains and crook shoulders." It was all due to pushing hard: "We had [the boat] fully wound out and it just physically punishes the guys. And it doesn’t matter how much training or weight lifting you do, you are not going to stop yourself from being battered around, the only thing it does help is your recovery rate. So you can get into port and you can recover and get on with the next leg."


When sails rip on a VO 60 during competition, there's no delay in getting them fixed. Ross Halcrow aboard illbruck (above) works his magic on the sewing machine to keep the boat's sail inventory together.
Accept that mistakes happen.
Chris described the start at Miami in which six of the eight boats were over the line early: "The chaos, screaming, and yelling on some of the boats rivaled some of the worst weekend-duffer conduct I’ve ever seen: sails wrapped around shrouds, tacking without switching the runners, and general mayhem. Funny, from a distance. And perhaps comforting that even the most experienced guys get fouled up."

And savor the simple pleasures. To save weight, on the first leg, which passed through temperate climates, skippers limited their crews to foul-weather gear, a hat, one pair each of shoes and socks, and a couple of T-shirts and shorts. "We get to bring a toothbrush, but they supply the toothpaste," said Keith Kilpatrick, who most regretted the absence of music because Walkman-type CD players were out. "One of the toughest things for me will be 30 days without music. It’ll be silence, and sleep when I can."

But sailors are adept at getting the best out of even the bleakest situations. "Apart from the wind direction and the lack of it between rain squalls, life is pretty sweet," Bridget Suckling reported early on the first leg from Amer Sports Too. "We have plenty of toilet paper, chicken curry on a Sunday night, one wet wipe per day, and at least two hours sleep on your off watch." Ah, the joys!



Suggested Reading:

Offshore Perils by John Rousmaniere

Weather for 'Round-the-World Sailing by Michael Carr

Offshore Safety Made Simple by Liza Copeland

 

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