Andy Rice gets valuable tips from Volvo Ocean Race skipper Chris Nicholson on how to nurse your yacht through challenging weather
To win, first you have to finish. Chris Nicholson needs no introduction to that old chestnut, having found himself in numerous hazardous situations in different parts of the world’s fierce oceans. In the 2005/06 Volvo Ocean Race, his Volvo Ocean 70 Movistar disappeared beneath him altogether when the boat sunk in the Atlantic.
It’s worth noting that many of the most successful helmsmen in the Volvo Ocean Race have come from a skiff racing background, including Rob Greenhalgh, Ian Walker and the Spanish 49er gold medallists Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez.
Chris notes that many of the best helmsmen are not just the fastest, but also the most sympathetic when it comes to nursing the boat safely through heinous, potentially boat-breaking conditions – and that’s where those skiff skills can come into play.
But you don’t have to sail around the world to encounter some of the worst conditions. Most of us will never experience sailing in the Southern Ocean but Chris says if it’s a choice between the world’s most infamous ocean or the Bay of Biscay, “Give me the Southern Ocean any day over the Bay of Certain Death,” as he and others in the professional racing trade like to call it.
Should you find yourself sailing into Biscay, or anywhere else in intimidating conditions, make sure you’ve read Chris’s best five tips for backing off.
1. Know the limits
Before you head out on a big race or get into any situation where you’re likely to push the boat hard in big conditions, you’ve got to have a really good understanding of the boat, the rig, the sails – everything.
You need to understand the engineering of the boat and its working loads. I’m a big fan of using load cells to help with that process, and that technology is becoming increasingly affordable.
The problem is that most damage occurs when you get a spike loading, and the effects of those are very hard to predict. So you need to work well inside the maximum break loads of all the equipment.
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2. Wind vs current
Whenever there’s any current thrown into the mix, your threat radar should be on high alert because the sea state is capable of kicking up quickly and with very little warning.
I remember going into the Agulhas Current off South Africa and running quite fast with a fractional kite up. We knew there was going to be some current against wind, but it just picked up the sea state so quickly, with really short, sharp waves. We did a huge nosedive at the bottom of one of the waves and blew the kite out as it exploded under the water pressure.
Our navigator told me we went up the back of the wave at 23° of angle and went down the front face at 26°. If you know you’re going to be heading into a wind versus current scenario, batten down the hatches and be prepared for the worst.
3. Match your speed to the waves
If you’re sailing downwind in stormy conditions and big waves, you’re vulnerable if you’re too fast and vulnerable if you’re too slow. In high-performance planing boats like VO70s or VO65s the bigger risk is in overtaking the waves and jumping off them.
On the first night of the 2005 Volvo Ocean Race it was really windy sailing out of Vigo in Spain, and we were travelling too fast with a fractional spinnaker, clocking speeds in the late 20s or early 30s. So we changed down to a jib, but found we still weren’t going that slowly. We leapt off a wave, landed with an almighty belly-flop, broke a ringframe, and had to retire from that leg.
Then again, being slow can leave you vulnerable. In the last Volvo Ocean Race we’d suffered damage on board AkzoNobel after a gybe that went badly wrong and stopped to make repairs. It was blowing around 45 knots but it felt safer when we were pushing the boat hard.
When stopped we were getting waves breaking over the top of us into the cockpit. Needless to say, that’s really dangerous. You don’t want people on deck in those conditions. Going hove-to is often more hazardous than keeping the boat moving.
4. Predict the crashes
I know drivers who are fast but are really hard on the gear. The skill is to be able to drive the boat in a way that’s going to preserve it and subject it to minimal shock loading.
Being fast is only half the answer, because some drivers don’t visualise the wave enough and work out how to work the boat around the wave to minimise a nosedive or a bad landing. The best drivers are fast when it matters, but they also know how to lessen the impact when the going gets really tough.
5. Wearing round
Gybing in strong winds can be hazardous, so keep in mind the old ‘wearing round’ option. We’ve done it once or twice in the Volvo 70. However, be mindful of what sails you’ve got up because if it’s blowing more than 40 knots then your staysail or small jib is going to take a hammering with all the flapping as you tack through the eye of the wind. There are no easy options here; whether you gybe or you wear round, it’s a massive manoeuvre.
About the expert
Chris Nicholson is a veteran of all six editions of the Volvo Ocean Race. A former 49er and 18ft Skiff World Champion, he is a two-time Olympian known for his boat handling. The Australian transferred his small boat sixth sense for high-speed driving into offshore racing and has been in demand ever since.
First published in the March 2020 edition of Yachting World.