Gybing a powerful offshore boat like a VO70 in big breeze is a fraught manoeuvre; team boss and former Olympian Konrad Lipski shares tips on how to gybe in strong winds and reducing the risk with Andy Rice

Gybing any boat in strong wind can be loaded with jeopardy but it’s particularly risky on a powerful boat like a VO70. The boat that was originally constructed for US skipper Ken Read’s Puma campaign in the Volvo Ocean Race, Mar Mostro is now enjoying a fulfilling second life as I Love Poland, a low-budget but well-run campaign on the offshore racing circuit.

Lipski says they’re keen to avoid a second mast breakage (Mar Mostro dismasted 2,000 miles from Cape Town in 2011), which is why the team runs such tight procedures on high risk manoeuvres like a heavy-air gybe. The rig set up on the VO70 demands slick crew routines.

“I spoke to the guys on the Figaro circuit about how they’re gybing single-handed in the middle of the night, and they don’t care about the runners because the spreaders are angled backwards enough to support the mast through the whole manoeuvre,” explains Lipski. “But on the VO70 we have zero degrees of spreader deflection so zero support from the back of the boat. We’re purely reliant on the runners and mainsheet tension.”

The other challenge for this campaign is the team is constantly bringing in new, young sailors, typically from a strong dinghy racing background but with next-to-no big boat experience. So having a clear procedure for vital manoeuvres is key to keeping the boat in one piece and the mast upright. Here are Konrad’s five best tips on how to safely execute a strong-wind gybe.

Chain of command

Make sure there’s a clear chain of command on the boat. Of course that’s not just for heavy air gybes, although it’s hard to think of a manoeuvre that tests that chain of command more than this one. As the navigator on board I Love Poland I also do the strategy and tactics. So I’m in constant conversation with the skipper and the helmsman. The helmsman then calls for the rest of the crew – the trimmers and grinders in particular – to be ready for the gybe.

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All hands on deck

When you’re racing offshore in a watch system, it’s vital to have as many crewmembers on deck as possible [going into the gybe]. We need to ensure we have enough power on the grinders, to have maximum control of the sails. When the wind speed reaches 30 knots or more, we require all hands on deck. Make sure all grinders are manned, no empty handles!

You also need to ensure the sheets for the gennaker are free of knots or obstructions; the pressure on the sail is high. We also need two people on the runners to ensure they remain stable during the sail manoeuvre – they’re essential for safety.

Another critical crew member is the mainsail trimmer, who needs to co-ordinate with the runners and the rest of the team. Losing a runner during the manoeuvre can be dangerous, especially if you find yourself spinning into a Chinese gybe. So it’s vital for the mainsail trimmer to keep the mainsail centred for as long as possible to provide backup to the runners and extra insurance to help keep the mast straight.

A VO70 masthead spinnaker is 500m2, requiring a full team on deck and the grinders to control it. Photo: James Mitchell/RORC

Choose your wave

Before the helmsman starts bearing away for the start of the gybe, we get confirmation from everyone on board that they’re ready. Usually this confirmation goes from the trimmer to the helmsman because the trimmer has an overview of the whole cockpit and is also the person who makes sure the sheets are ready to run smoothly on the gennaker.

When the helmsman gets the signal to go, look for a moment to bear away down the face of a wave, just to take some pressure out of the sails as the boat accelerates down it. From there the mainsail is sheeted to the centre and after that it’s all down to the co-ordination of the crew.

Smooth transition

It’s key to co-ordinate the transition to the new gybe. As the boat goes through the gybe, the old gennaker sheet is released and the grinders help the trimmer pull in the new sheet to get the gennaker set as quickly as possible. The sooner you’re back up to full pace, the safer you are.

The I Love Poland crew setting off on their way to a RORC Transatlantic Race win. Photo: James Mitchell/RORC

As soon as the new windward runner is secure, there needs to be a clear confirmation. That’s also the signal that the new leeward runner can be eased, and the mainsail soon afterwards. If in doubt, we keep these on longer than necessary, to stay on the safe side of keeping the mast intact. But the more you practise this manoeuvre, the more confident and faster you will become.

And the faster you get, the less downtime between gybes there will be. This is the aim, because the less time you spend down-speed during the manoeuvre, the quicker you take the load off the sails and the rig.

Share learnings

Because we’re always bringing new crew on board for the first time, often with only dinghy sailing experience, we make sure we spread the experience around the boat in the most important areas.

Our goal is to have at least one experienced crewmember on each position on board, and during manoeuvres or watch systems we double up wherever we can. During training we talk through every detail and discuss every procedure as much as possible to make the sailing process more effective.

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