Friday, January 20, 2012

The story about our northerly move on leg 2

I wasn’t going to spend many thoughts on “what could have been” if we had not broken that rigging part on Leg 2 – rather try to make it happen on another leg later in the race. But then the other day a mate sent me links to a couple of quite shallow and factually incorrect articles citing our decision to head north towards the low pressure system off Madagascar as to the reason why the rigging piece broke. So I thought it was only right to tell the full story and get the facts right.

During the 08-09 race when I sailed onboard “Ericsson 3”, we sailed for more than 10 days in conditions similar to those we sailed in the night before the D2 broke – fast reaching with the wind angle just aft of beam. And quite a few days in what I would call “much worse” conditions, conditions you would avoid if you could.

The high boat speeds and the apparent wind angle makes it uncomfortable to be on deck in conditions like we encountered on Leg 2, particularly at night when you can’t see the waves that are trying to smack you. But these conditions aren’t normally what break the boat, as you are sailing with small sails, boat not very loaded up and generally taking the waves at a good angle without much slamming or nose-diving that loads the boat up.

While we are at this strategy, the “problem” of whether or not to go north was something that was haunting all of the skippers and navigators for days since leaving the African coast. Basically, the traditional route for this leg is to head due east to get a better angle in the trades when you head north later. Significantly more distance, but you will also be sailing much faster than you will do upwind along the rhumb line.

This time however, there was a slow-moving cold front to our East. On the weather models and computer simulations this wasn’t very significant, but as soon as I saw it I doubted we could ever get through it. But the computer thought we could, and the majority of the fleet were sailing due East, so we decided not to take the risk to go upwind for five days only for the rest of the fleet to reach around us if they got through the cold front area.

We kept bumping into the front, hoping to break through it, but as soon as the wind started lifting and going lighter, we became slower than it and got into the old breeze behind it again. This seemed to repeat itself over a couple of days which caused plenty of frustration in the fleet (Ken Read and others said the worst sailing ever) as we continuously changed sails and trim for the very changeable breeze. And the rain was pouring down all the time. Every day we felt more and more stupid for not having gone north the day before. I assume this will have applied to the rest of the fleet as well.

At the same time, the active zone we had to get through looked much bigger on the satellite pictures (up to 300 nautical miles, not 30-60 as in the weather models). The models aren’t any better than what info you put into them, i.e. the weather observations. And a quick look at the weather maps tells us that there are almost no observations in this part of the world, and as well it is not a very interesting area for the USA or EU – commercially or militarily. So the models aren’t “tuned” for these areas.

This time, the weather models were just quite wrong. And the fleet seemed very hesitant to accept it. I think all were happy to just keep doing what everyone else was doing. You want to be pretty sure before you turn around and sail the other way, which is why we waited so long before we did. By waiting we probably gave away one day or so, but we also reduced the risk significantly: We could watch the weather by Madagascar develop according to the weather models, which in the end made us turn around almost like at  a top mark on an inshore course.

The biggest risk by sailing north was that the light air zone to the north of the cold front we were sailing along would cost us a lot of time. Then of course, if the low didn’t develop in the place we expected.  There was also some risk of quite strong winds, but not huge given that some of the conditions the lows need to develop aren’t present southeast of Madagascar, and even if adding a good safety margin from what the models were showing, we wouldn’t have to sail for long in wind speeds or at angles we didn’t like.

At the time we turned north, I expected us to make a gain of about 12 hours over the next 72 hours. If “worst case” light airs and westerly position of the low was present, I expected we could lose half of this, but still have a good margin – which we would need reaching against the newer boats! The Juan K boats were faster reaching than our boat already in the 08-09 race, and are even faster this time.

As we didn’t trust the weather models much, we aimed to sail about 105 TWA (wind just aft of beam) to be sure to hit the low pressure system right, so that’s what we did overnight. After all, the winds are blowing around the low pressure, so if you have it just aft of beam you know you are aiming just for the center of it. And the center of an old, non-intensifying, low, contains weak winds. We were in a quite conservative mode and sailed under-rigged with two reefs and the storm jib for a long while until we were sure that the winds didn’t increase any more and unfurled the J4 and shook out a reef in the morning. Two reefs and the J4 would actually have been the right sail combo through the night, but we wanted to be prepared for the worst case, and were definitely not going to break the boat.

I was really happy to notice that our course was further east than expected, which meant that the low was further east and would allow us both to sail shorter, at a better angle and for longer on a good angle out on the other side of the low to presumably allow us to cross ahead of the rest of the fleet. But as we were getting close to the low and hoisting a bigger sail to skirt the north of it, Bert noticed the broken D2, so we will never know.

Like many have said, it felt quite weird to stop sailing without really haven broken anything while sailing. Normally you hit a wave and something breaks, something that stops the boat and you have to sort out immediately. Like a hole in the boat, rig falling down, tack line of the code zero breaking or a sail falling down. In this case, we were just sailing normally and slowly realizing that this was nothing we could repair offshore and we better stop sailing now rather than sail into the wind shift that would make us gybe over and load the side with the damaged D2.

For some, this story is probably a bit different than the impression they got from some media about us sailing into a tropical storm to “make it or break it”. Firstly, it’s not easy for the journalists to see what is going on from the outside, and secondly, I think the media and the event use these “big simplified stories” that everyone can understand to make an impact.

Sorry that I didn't post any graphics with this one, I just didn't want to spend any more time on it a few days before the leg 3 start.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Changing my mind...

I have never perceived ocean racing to be particularly risky. I don’t have a pull towards the risky aspect of it, I am purely in it for the boat-against-boat racing aspect. For sure things can happen, but as I am generally sailing with very skilled guys, I always feel quite safe. But I guess it is time to revisit the issue after two near-sinkings in just a bit more than one round the world race for me to date.

The damage to Sanya Lan in the cradle in Motril, Spain

It was only the first morning after the Leg 1 start when the room in front of our forward watertight compartment quickly filled up with water. Fortunately it happened while we were still in “civilized” waters. For sure it would have been harder to limit the damage and keep the boat afloat had it happened mid South Atlantic, in the strong westerlies.

The carbon fiber boats are great – very light and stiff – until the carbon layers start delaminating / breaking. As we experienced in the 08-09 race when we almost sunk with “Ericsson 3” off Taiwan, a quite small puncture to the outer carbon fiber skin will quickly let water pressure explode the layers apart, especially in rough sea state / slamming conditions.

Ericsson 3 in Taiwan, with the damaged area marked out in blue tape

Now it is a very uncommon occurrence that this was to happen to me (and Richard Mason) two times in as many races, but it makes for a bit of re-evaluation of the risk/danger aspect of what we're doing.

Anyway, I never felt physically in danger as we were sailing in the Mediterranean, in daylight, in breezy but manageable conditions, communication systems still working and most of the crew in one piece (Andy man down as he broke his ankle a few hours before).

Falling over board is still my one fear on these boats, as stopping the boat and finding a person in the water at night in rough conditions within reasonable time will always be hard. However, for the period between the two last Volvo Ocean Races I have cycled competitively on the road, and I still feel more vulnerable at the bike than on the boat. But it might of course be because I have done far more miles on the boat and feel more comfortable in that environment. I guess also we spend far more time on the boats..

But to reduce the risk when falling overboard, I will take lots of care to get the life jacket on when appropriate, and try to get into the survival more than I use to. To be honest, I only think I used it once in the last race. It is just a bit of hassle to take it on and off all the time when I go back and forth between the nav station and talking to the guys on deck. I am also using both the VOR supplied R10 AIS personal beacon, and a personal EPIRB just in case.. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

VOR Leg Zero part 1/2

A bit late in the Leg Zero start - or a bit too early by the pin end of the line 2-3 minutes before the start to tack before the others. Credit: Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race
My blogging isn’t going well – 5 weeks since the last post. It is just a function of the pace in a Volvo Ocean Race, will try to check in more often until the start.

Last weekend we did the Qualifying Race, or Leg Zero, for this Volvo Ocean Race. This was the first time we lined up against the other boats – first in a couple of in-port laps, then “offshore” from Alicante to Palma de Mallorca and back. We didn’t get the best start, so chased around the first two laps. The breeze was very light and with the small race course we just had to do our best to keep clear air.

The new VO70 rule only allows for two masthead sails, so normally the boats will carry one code zero – upwind or reaching oriented – and one spinnaker type sail – downwind or reaching oriented. For this race at least Camper and Puma seemed to declare proper spinnakers while the rest of the fleet seemed to sail with more reaching oriented sails.

We were left a bit behind on the upwind up the coast to meet the expected northerly Mistral. During the race we had to do some safety drills for VOR Race Management, like Man Over Board drill, use the Emergency Steering System, sail with storm sails and deliver media content. Groupama seemed to have an issue locating or recovering their MOB, so we passed them and had a good fight up the coast where we slowly gained by sailing inside the gradual left shifting breeze.

We missed Moose on Leg Zero due to his appendicitis operation a few days before, but used him for the MOB drill to big amusement onboard
Before the start we had a pretty clear picture that we wanted to sail south of Ibiza which lies on the rhumb line, so as soon as we thought we had “enough” north shift – we started in an easterly breeze – we shot off the coast towards Ibiza. Of course we wouldn’t like to split and loose a good chance of lining up against the opposition, but from our position slightly behind the fleet it was hard to cover them, so we sailed what we believed would be the fastest route.

It soon became clear that Abu Dhabi and us were the only ones heading for the gap between Ibiza and Formentura, with the rest of the fleet sailing north of the islands. Abu Dhabi were leading the fleet and sailed high to get up to the others, while we pushed east in anticipation of the strong easterly shift just after Ibiza that would enable us to sail north towards Palma again. It was too late for us to get north anyway, as we would have to take a loss to get there at that time.

To be continued..
Nice to try out the podium as well, with our 3rd place finish

The Mistral is hard to forecast, at least west of Mallorca, and kicked in much later than forecast and stayed for a shorter time. None of the weather models we looked at for this race was close to the reality, and surely the other navigators will have scratched their heads as much as myself over this. So we chose to sail for the expected changes in the big picture (a high pressure system would move south over us), and what we could see. In the end one model seemed to resolve the situation better than the others, but I will keep that quiet in case the race start will be in similar conditions.

After Ibiza the right shift arrived as expected – with force. In the black night we were auto-tacked by the sudden 90-degrees shift, and ended up with the keel and stack still on the old side, heeled over nicely to 90 degrees until we got it all sorted. A good thing to experience this now and not during the race, damaging one sail and having us limping for a good while afterwards. This probably cost us the miles we were lacking to get in touch with the fleet again by Palma, we were about five miles behind Groupama and Abu Dhabi by Palma.

Our track as displayed by Deckman software, with wind vectors representing wind speed and direction. Northerly breeze sailing to Palma and finally southerly sailing back to the finish in Alicante

Leaving Palma and in the middle of the emergency steering drill, the breeze vanished and the fleet were parking randomly. Some boats seemed to have a clear strategy to sail north of Ibiza again, maybe due to one of the models predicting a northerly push there. We preferred to keep the boat moving in the right direction and keeping the options open for as long as possible, and ended up picking the gap between Ibiza and Formentura again. The more inshore oriented sailors onboard (no offence) complained about the sea state as we were really drifting for most the day in a funny swell, good practice for the race where we will see this several times.

Finally as we were south of Ibiza the breeze filled in from the south west where we were positioned behind Telefonica and Puma. From there on there were no real opportunities, we all sailed into the dying land breeze so the distances just increased. The northerly group finished several hours after us when the sea breeze filled in, except from Abu Dhabi who motored home and will have to complete their qualifier later! I heard a rumor that Puma never did their emergency rudder drill, so they might also have another go J

All in all good practice for us and a good result, nice for the team after all the hard work to get to where we are.

**Mistral is a strong wind from the Alps that strike the Mediterranean quite often. It is normally started by a high pressure in the Bay of Biscay bringing cold air over the mountains. You can read more about it here
**Rhumb line is the direct line between two waypoints.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

VOR Safety Course

Had a couple of days “off” in Norway last weekend, then went straight to Newcastle to do the VOR Safety Training. Two very relevant days, made exactly for what we are doing. And even though our safety equipment is the best there is, what one are left with in the end is to not end up in a situation where you need it.

The first day was theory mostly on first aid, and a couple of hours of firefighting. I think most the VOR sailors have experienced some kind of fire onboard, particularly on the electrical system, which makes this quite relevant. But this course isn’t all about being taught what to do, after all the crews possess hands-on experience with most issues. Just as much as going through the syllabus, we discuss solutions to different scenarios and transfer experience between us. We didn’t have any fires during the last race, but a few ones in our preparation that we could sort out by turning the power off. However, Moose had a good one on ABN Amro where the batteries caught fire, which was hard to put out. We now have improved solutions for how to fight such fires.

Moose and Frankie getting their injuries sorted out

The second day was mostly on the use of our safety equipment and life raft, ending up with a few hours in the “environmental” pool with waves, wind, tropical rain, noise and darkness. We did this before the last VOR as well, but it is very good with a refresher. Here we got familiar with setting up our life jackets, turning the life raft from upside down, getting into it, being inside it upside down and maintaining it. In reality, it is going to be quite rough when you have to get in it, so we train for that – getting rid of the water inside it, picking up and treating injured crew members and helicopter rescue.

The most uncomfortable I have been in life (I think!!) is swimming around backwards with the life jacket hood on. I just feel like I can’t breathe through the 6 or so tiny venting holes inside this completely fogged down hood of a tent. It is supposed to protect from breaking waves and heavy rain, but I just feel like I don’t have control of what’s going on around me. But got through it this time as well J

The final exercise this time around was to swim around in the pool with all the “environment” turned on, without the life jacket. Those who got in trouble was picked up by the divers, but we all seemed to be decent swimmers. Of course, it helped that we did this with survival suits on, not being dragged down by the wet weather gear being full of water.

Just sent this link to the instructors of the VOR Safety Course. It is one episode of the documentary on the Norwegian Rescue Services (330 squadron), a helicopter rescue of a Norwegian sailor in the North Sea at winter. Worth a look, but in Norwegian. Strong guy!

Unconscious in the life raft, EPIRB antenna jammed between teeth