New one-designs have delivered a closely matched fleet of Volvo boats, but they are quite a handful. Matthew Sheahan finds out why some crews are faring better than others

It used to be the case that the fastest boat with the biggest budget won the Volvo Ocean Race. But this time, with seven identical Volvo boats and little opportunity under the tight rules to develop, tweak or optimise anything, the 39,000-nautical mile race round the world is proving to be very different.

The race is far more about the crews and how they handle a less potent boat than last time, but one that is nonetheless proving to be tricky to sail. Although the new Volvo 65s may be strict one-designs, there are plenty of ways to drop off the pace. These boats are needy, twitchy beasts that require constant attention and crews can no longer rely on their boat’s individual sweet spot to recover lost miles.

Adding to the pressure, crew numbers have been reduced from ten to eight (for all-male teams) while still handling a sail plan more than three times bigger than a typical 40ft racer aboard a boat that is many times more powerful. So it’s easy to trip up. And when they do they have to make sure that they don’t break anything – especially sails.

“We went round the world last time without broaching once,” says Abu Dhabi’s skipper Ian Walker. “We broached around five times on the first leg alone – one of them was nearly to leeward.”


Couple of wipe-outs

His team is not alone in the struggle to keep the boat the right way up. “I had a couple of wipe-outs,” admits one of Vestas Wind’s helmsmen, Tom Johnson, “one was in just ten knots of wind!”

One of the reasons is that the new VO65s have significantly less righting moment than their 70ft predecessors, largely as a result of using weight that would have been in the keel bulb for greater internal structure to make the boats more robust. Even with the 1,000kg forward water ballast tank filled – included to improve upwind performance – crews talk of the difficulty in preventing the bow falling off to leeward in strong winds and big seas.

Downwind sailing in a breeze is even more challenging. Though you might expect a boat of this type to be travelling at 28-32 knots at 130° true, you wouldn’t expect it to be heeling at 25-30°, planing on its side.

“The 65s feel safer, and a lot of the time I like that,” declares Abu Dhabi’s Justin Slattery. “They don’t nosedive as much as the 70s. But to sail fast on a 65 you need to be right on the edge.”

These boats take their toll on the crew

These boats take their toll on the crew

So wiping out is much easier, more likely and risks damaging sails and/or gear, but even then it’s not a normal broach to windward that worries the crews, but the risk of losing it to leeward as they recover.

In the past a stronger breeze simply meant sailing deeper. Now crews try to generate as much righting moment as they can with the lighter keel bulb and allow the boat to heel more. The stack above and below decks is crucial as it represents a greater proportion of overall righting moment, and its fore and aft position is also more critical as the 65s have more hull rocker and so trim more readily. The additional heel means that the keel fin is closer to the water surface and more prone to ventilation, all of which adds up to a more twitchy boat that is sailing on her ear at speed.

“Imagine the scenario,” continues Slattery. “The mainsheet has been dumped as you tried to prevent the broach, but the keel, stack and ballast are all to weather. With just three or four on deck there aren’t enough people to sheet on the mainsail quickly enough to restore the balance on the helm while sorting out the rest of the mess . . . and bang! You wipe out to leeward.”

Then there is the issue of sail changes. With the course winding across the Equator four times, crews are changing gear frequently and struggling with squalls. On the face of it furling sails should be easier, but unlike a rapid kite drop behind the mainsail, which can be performed quickly and with a few crew, furling a large downwind sail takes time,
requires the full crew on deck and quickly saps energy.

“The first 15 turns of the handles do very little,” complains Neal McDonald of Abu Dhabi. “When you bear away to get the apparent wind aft you can still be doing 20 knots. By the time you’ve furled you’ve done a mile and you still have to get the sail down. You can lose two miles in a change.”

Striking the right balance between how much slower you might be with the wrong sail for the period of the squall, versus how much distance is lost making the change is key.


Variety of approaches

These are critical tactical decisions that are changing the game for the brains trust aboard each boat. This, combined with the potency of the boats and their short-staffed nature, has produced a variety of approaches, particularly in how the skipper and navigator work together.

The conventional approach would be to take the navigator and skipper out of the watch system, just as Charlie Enright’s Team Alvimedica do.

“We usually run with two to three on deck, with Charlie and I out of the watch system,” says Alvimedica’s navigator, Will Oxley. “At least one of us is around for all the sail changes, but we just end up with less sleep than anyone else.

Others, such as Dongfeng Racing’s skipper, Charles Caudrelier, take a very different approach based more on the short-handed nature of these powerful boats.

“We are fast because we have crew that come from the Figaro race,” he declares. “They are used to trimming, driving, navigating, sail changing, doing everything. Before the VO65s came along you needed to have the best boat, but now you need the best combination of people.”

Rather than a crew list of experienced sailors, Caudrelier’s team includes a pair of Chinese crew, from a pool of new Chinese sailors, who had never sailed offshore, let alone raced before, making Dongfeng one of the most diverse crews in the fleet.

This might seem an unusual approach for a twitchy, demanding boat, but there is a clear chain of command, from the foot soldiers in the cockpit to the brains trust at the computer and on the wheel.

Another to come from the fiercely competitive Figaro circuit is Team SCA skipper Sam Davies, who is in no doubt as to the importance of keeping pace in a one-design fleet.

“I know from sailing in the Figaro that you will certainly sail better and faster when you’re in the pack. But when you’re on your own you have to find ways of keeping your mind positive. That’s what I try to do with our crew,” she says.

With 11 crew (the all-female crew limit) Team SCA can use a more conventional two-watch system, with five crew in each and with navigator Libby Greenhalgh out of the watch. “I prefer to be in a watch,” explains Davies. “I tried floating between watches on the Round Britain and Ireland, but it didn’t work for us.”


Fast learners

Meanwhile, this is Chris Nicholson’s fifth Volvo race. Though he started this campaign with less time than ever to prepare, you could see at the end of the first leg that Team Vestas Wind was a project he felt comfortable with.

Nicholson has his experienced senior staff such as Rob Salthouse and Tony Rae alongside him, but younger team members Nicolai Sehested, Peter Wibroe and Tom Johnson had little, if any, offshore experience. But all three are fast learners with plenty of natural ability in high-performance machines such as Extreme 40s, Melges 32s and foiling Moths. Balancing too much sail on an unstable platform is second nature to them, leaving the old guard impressed.

“One example is when it comes to daggerboard settings,” explains Nicholson. “On a VO65 we don’t have sufficiently sophisticated instruments to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong on these boats, so feel is important. The more experienced members of the crew are more likely to place it in a setting out of habit, whereas the younger guys do it simply by feel.

“At the start of the race, I and the other more experienced sailors were staying up on deck through the nights to try to keep the pressure off these guys and ease them in. We had three drivers at the beginning of the race; now we have five.”

Nicholson’s strategy is to sail with three on deck, with two helmsmen on each watch.

“I’ll usually drive through watch changes and during other key times. The crew never know when I’ll pop up,” he jokes. “Above all else, though, the most gratifying thing is that I know for sure we have good people in our team. You can always assemble a group with impressive CVs, but a solid team is the most important thing in my book.”

Team Brunel’s skipper, Bouwe Bekking, is another who has seen plenty of Volvo action; this is his seventh race. His navigator, Andrew Cape, has five previous Volvos and has been one of the most sought-after navigators for many years. He also has a 2nd place in the two-handed Barcelona World Race to his name, making him even more valuable aboard a short-staffed Volvo 65.

“The navigators will define this race,” declares Bekking. Bekking and Cape are on opposite watches and make their decisions during the time in which they overlap. “We don’t look at the scheds from Volvo; we do our own. We look at boats’ performances based on their course, heading and VMC relative to waypoints that Capey has put in along the track. The Volvo system looks only at the finish point, which can often give misleading information.”


Ian Walker and Simon fisher on Abu Dhabi

Ian Walker and Simon fisher on Abu Dhabi

Role of the navigator

Abu Dhabi’s Ian Walker and his navigator, Simon ‘Sci Fi’ Fisher, operate closely together, although they are also on opposite watches and both drive. Indeed, all eight of the Abu Dhabi crew helm the boat. But while Walker acknowledges the importance of the navigator and the relationship with the skipper, he’s doesn’t share Bekking’s view on where ultimate success lies.

“I’m not sure whether the race will be won by navigators and skippers or by those who optimise their boat the best,” he says. “It might be a strict one-design, but there are so many factors that affect speed, just as there are in any boat. There’s sail trim, fore and aft trim, steering, daggerboard settings, rudder angles, ballast configurations, stacking and so on. It feels like being in the peloton – you might be out in front, but you’re constantly under pressure from behind. One small mistake in any areas and you get overtaken.”

Seeing the result of those errors is much easier in this edition of the Volvo. “AIS has made the biggest difference, though, both for good and bad,” continues Walker. “When you’re within five miles you can see your opponent’s every move. But when you lose them on AIS, the six-hour wait for the next sched is a long time. The next time you see them they could be over 150 miles away.”

The way the crew look after their boat and its kit is likely to play a much bigger part in this race.

“In six months’ time there will be teams that are splintering,” declares Chris Nicholson. “Holding a team together is not about budget. This race has a reputation for being a full pressure cooker and a key to success is about who can keep the lid on best.”



This is an extract from a feature in the January 2015 issue of Yachting World