The 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race presents different challenges from the last race three years ago: new crew mixes and new strategies prompted by a different course. And then there is the science… Chris Bedford, Simon Fisher and Mark Towill
Seahorse: How did the welcome reintroduction of longer oceanic legs affect the different strategy roles in your team?
Simon Fisher (SiFi): Even though there is more Southern Ocean in this edition I’m not sure we will see a fundamental change in how people approach the race overall. We try to approach each leg in the same way irrespective of length, building a strong strategy where we feel we have confidence in the forecast, and to consider all the potential options. If I feel we have had no surprises out on the water I know we have done a good job onshore!
However, the race is busier than ever in terms of schedule and there is not a lot of down time, so having good shore support is more important than ever. Here at Vestas 11th Hour Racing we are following a path similar to how we worked with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing last time. I am lucky to be surrounded by a strong team with Chris Bedford as our meteorologist once again who works remotely from the US. Anderson Reggio is supporting me on site as a shorebased navigator, involving everything from weather to performance analysis and generally taking stuff off my plate and staying on top of the evolving situation with the weather while we fulfil our obligations on the water. Hopefully it also means I can stay rested and spend a bit of time with my family too! With Vestas as a partner we have access to some additional meteorological resources which makes for an exciting collaboration.
SH: With a small crew, will you share the onboard routeing role more than before?
SF: Thanks to the rules allowing additional female crew we are actually fortunate to have one more on the boat this time around. It’s fair to say, though – nine isn’t a lot and I try hard to contribute on deck as much as possible. I guess one of my strengths as a navigator is I have also done this race as a helm and trimmer, which means I can get stuck into the sailing too. This also helps me make better decisions as a navigator as you are more in tune with boat performance.
Having to contribute to a watch gives your day some structure and, although I still get less sleep than everyone else, it does allow me to get some planned rest and a rhythm to the decision-making process onboard. Generally when people get overtired they are more likely to make bad decisions. Although I do the bulk of analysing the weather, I share the decision-making with Charlie [Enright] and for us that works well – but it’s up to the team and the people onboard whether it’s better to have more or fewer people involved. I’d be selling the rest of the team short if I didn’t add that their input is important.
SH: Does the combination of small crews and long legs prompt a different approach to weather and risk taking?
SF: In my mind ‘risk management’ is central to offshore navigation. Basically we are always weighing up the risk versus reward of any potential decision – your position on a leg, in the overall race and your confidence in any situation will always put you somewhere slightly different on the scale. If you are fast it makes your life a lot easier and you can generally be more conservative (which as a navigator is great). I’m excited to see how people approach this race. I think there is a bit more depth in the fleet this time and a lot more experience with the boats; everyone should be closer now. With that in mind, using the conservative approach it might be harder to score consistently strong results so you might see more risk taking, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. There are some double-points legs, which is great if you win but double-bad if you lose. So it remains to be seen if people will elect to take more risk or scrap it out in the pack.
SH: The return of Vestas as sponsor with their own enormous met resources must have some influence on their ‘home’ team.
SF: We are pretty excited about the resources Vestas bring. We are able to get access to more weather data, run high-resolution models and do detailed CFD modelling which hopefully gives us an advantage over the others! This is all very computer hungry and time intensive, so we are grateful to Vestas for making this available to us. It’s interesting too, since as competitive people we are always looking to develop; this is a good opportunity to do that.
SH: On which legs do you anticipate conditions may be measurably different?
SF: Leg 2 to Cape Town has plenty of potential to take on a different guise this time with Fernando de Noronha [an island off the northeast coast of Brazil] no longer part of the course. It opens up a lot of options to cross the ITCZ further east and pursue a more upwind route to Cape Town. I hope not, though!
Chris Bedford: I completely concur with SiFi with respect to Leg 2. The removal of Fernando de Noronha as a waypoint has completely changed that leg. There are interesting opportunities that were not available previously by allowing the possibility of the boats taking a shorter route to Cape Town. However, that needs to be balanced by the potential for additional wear and tear on the boats and crews with a lot of race still to go after arriving in South Africa.
Leg 4 from Melbourne to Hong Kong is a completely new leg. So that one will be very different. The leg travels north off the east coast of Australia and across a vast section of tropical ocean which will be quite un - stable in both wind and weather conditions. It will be fascinating to watch and I anticipate all the teams will experience some big ups and downs before reaching Hong Kong.
SH: How far is the Vestas information supply to ‘your’ team allowed to extend?
SF: We have been given access to the work Vestas did for the last race, which was a very good starting point. As I mentioned, we are also getting access to a lot of data and resources from the Vestas meteorological team. Thomas Alsbirk from the Vestas met team joined us in Alicante where we also looked at other ways they can support us. For that we are very grateful.
SH: ‘Climate trends and the VOR’ are interesting from many directions.
SF: Having us sail through the Southern Ocean is always a good opportunity for us to provide more information whether it is observations, dropping current buoys or providing access to our wind and SST data, as not a lot of boats go down there. We have had some interesting briefings based around the ‘sustainability’ theme of this race and I’m hopeful as a fleet we can help both by spreading a message of good ocean health, but also by collecting and sharing some valuable data.
CB: It is hard to say that we’ll see the direct results of climate change in the weather we encounter. Races occur periodically and we capture only the conditions that happen to be present at the time the boats sail through a particular region. Climate is the accumulation of all weather over a long period of time. So really, in terms of weather, we won’t ‘see’ the effects of climate change.
However, one aspect of climate change that may impact the race is the presence of icebergs in the Southern Ocean. As global temperatures warm, the Antarctic ice sheet is breaking up and shrinking, leading to an increase in the iceberg population in certain segments of the Southern Ocean. The intention is for the race committee to set safety boundaries for the fleet to keep them out of areas of significant icebergs, which present a very clear danger to any high-performance sailboat moving quickly. They will employ satellite searches for ice in the Southern Ocean and establish zones into which the fleet will not be permitted to sail. This may in turn keep the boats further north than during previous races, where they are likely to experience different weather conditions. SH: A delicate question, but you have to go as far back as the 1996-97 Vendée Globe to find a race that encountered ‘extreme’ Southern Ocean conditions. Such events have a natural frequency and everyone hopes this race does not encounter one – however, is the likelihood of such an ‘event’ any different today?
SF: I will leave the climatology to Chris (Bedford) as he has a much better view on that than me, but I will say that I think with better data and faster boats we probably more actively avoid the more extreme conditions than they did 20 years ago! We actually get slower when the winds exceed 35kt so we do our best to avoid the worst of it. We also have access to much better ice data so inevitably we don’t get as far south as they did in the past; I’m happy to say we don’t have to take the same risks they did, as the race committee can now set their exclusion zones based on good data. I think for them to know there is ice there and send us racing down there anyway would probably be irresponsible and doesn’t really add anything to the sporting value of the race. No one wants to see an accident.
CB: I honestly don’t believe the probability of extreme Southern Ocean conditions is any different than it was 20 years ago. What is different is the accuracy and availability of weather data. Twenty years ago the use of detailed model data and routeing software was still very much in its infancy. Today technology allows the boats to receive much more detailed weather information than was available in the past. In addition, weather modelling/forecasting has made significant strides in its ability to predict conditions days in advance and with great accuracy – even in remote places. This allows the crews to see and avoid areas of extreme and dangerous winds and seas, while routeing software is able to help them simulate both the fastest and safest routes to take.
SH: This race is placing more emphasis than ever on a practical commitment to clean oceans and broad-based sustainability.
SF: Vestas 11th Hour Racing aim to be the most sustainable team in the race and it feels good to be contributing to that.
Mark Towill (team director): We are all looking forward to using this race to spread the message of sustainability and draw awareness to the issues. We have three main components to our programme. The first is operational, onshore and onboard. We took a hard look at our last campaign and identified areas that we can improve. This goes through to resource vetting suppliers and monitoring the carbon footprint of our logistics. We source local foods and sort out our waste from the boat to make sure it is properly recycled… (and we avoid meat on Mondays!). We are partnering with local environmental organisations at each stop to try to give local issues a small boost; each group will also receive a grant from our other main partner, 11th Hour Racing, to encourage their work. Our goal is to leave a lasting impact at each of the stopovers.
The last component is through communication: this race has a big following, and all the foot traffic at the stopovers is a chance to reach new audiences. Our base includes a dedicated public education space centred around ocean health as well as renewable energies, encouraging visitors to consider changes in their own behaviour.
SH: Finally, please can those of you sailing onboard give us a little more insight into how you balance time and energy trying to win a premier yacht race with collecting a realistically modest amount of useful scientific data along the way?
MT: For the first legs we are using a special app to track the marine debris we see; this was developed in collaboration with 11th Hour Racing. The OBRs are responsible for compiling the information, which then goes into a public database to be used by scientists around the world. We will also be using a marine mammal tracking system to record wildlife encounters. This race has a specific mission to gather data that will help make a meaningful difference in the fight against ocean plastic pollution. As part of this programme the Turn the Tide on Plastic boat is carrying equipment on the early legs to collect extra scientific information including salinity, water temperature, dissolved CO2 and other seawater data; they also use a custom filtration system to measure the amount of microplastics in the ocean. These key metrics will add another snapshot to current data on the world’s oceans.
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