A Grand Day Out

17 Jul

Back in the day I had a yen to do a Whitbread race, as it was then. I envisioned myself steering resolutely down towering Southern Ocean swells, setting new boatspeed records to the acclaim of my crewmates, and sipping champagne from stilettos in the post-race parties. Of course a lack of skill and ambition in that direction scuppered any chances I had of doing a round-the-world race, and now of course the last thing I would contemplate doing is exposing my middle-aged self to the frigid wastes of the Roaring Forties, let alone the Furious Fifities or the Shrieking Sixties. I’m good with experiencing all that vicariously through the Volvo Ocean Race’s excellent videos.

I was reminded of those youthful pipe dreams last week when I was invited down to Newport, RI for a sail on Azzam, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team’s new Volvo 65, courtesy of sponsors Etihad Airlines. The race is entering a new era now, with the six teams competing in identical boats designed by Bruce Farr. “This is now a strict one-design class,” Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker told me. “Each boat is delivered fully equipped and we can’t change a thing.” Even the ends of sheets and halyards are bar-coded so organizers will know if they’ve been shortened.

This means big adjustments for the sailors who’ve competed in previous editions.  Walker is on his third Volvo, and most of his Azzam teammates have several races behind them (one has already done five!). “The boat does not feel that different from the 70, but the very strictness of the rule means that we have to adapt to the boat, rather than tweaking the boat to suit ourselves,” he says. “We are sailing with fewer crew and only have seven sails instead of 11, so the more time we get on the boats before the start, the better.”

The affable Walker reckons this will be the tightest race in the 40-year history of the event. I think he may be right.

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Now that’s what I call a transom—just over 18 feet wide! Having all that beam carried aft means the boats needs twin rudders to retain control when hard on the wind. The central tower houses liferafts and communications equipment.

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Trimmer/helmsman Justin Slattery was celebrating his 40th birthday on the day. Here he tends one of the three coffee grinders, just before summoning yours truly to help sweat the mainsail up.

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Thankfully the women from Etihad also put their backs into it. The multi-geared carbon fiber coffee grinders and winches from Harken are amazingly powerful.

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The pit—where all the sail controls are handled in the cockpit—is split into three parts, with mot lines brought to the central pod. There’s a dedicated winch for each cluster of lines, which can also be diverted to other winches nearby. You can see why the French nickname the pit area the “piano!”

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Slightly less clutter in the outboard pit area; not the arrows on the port primary winch, which is “handed”—the sheet is wound on anti-clockwise to ensure a better lead from the turning block.

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The cockpit is long, wide and uncluttered—when crew often have to move quickly and in poor visibility, they need to know their way around instinctively, and the fewer tripping hazards, the better.

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Here’s an indication of the kind of loads these boats have to handle—no more than 10 tons of tension on the forestay, folks…

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Home, sweet home…  All the cooking—aka adding water to freeze dried food—is done here by the boat’s media crewman, who isn’t allowed to help handle the boat but does get to do domestic chores.

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Here’s where the brains trust—skipper and navigator—hang out. Pretty simple really – a pair of laptops for navigation, interment repeaters, and adjustable seating. The aftermost chair is for the media crewman, who has his own editing station.

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The palatial accommodations. There are eight bulkheads within the boat, most of which have watertight doors to contain flooding. In the center you can see the forward water ballast tank—there are two others aft. In the tropics, the unventilated all-carbon interior will be sweltering hot and dripping with condensation. In the Southern Ocean, the unheated all-carbon interior will be freezing cold and dripping with condensation…

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Voila, the throne room. It’s a lot more civilized than the arrangements I’ve seen on some ocean racers. That carbon fiber toilet is gimbaled and all plumbing is right out there in plain view. And the compartment is screened on three sides so there is a modicum of privacy.

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Skipper Ian Walker explains the provisions. Each of these bags contain two days’ worth of food for the crew of nine, all carefully measured and bagged for maximum caloric loading. Each crewman must consume 5,000 calories a day to avoid losing weight. It’s not all freeze-dried mush—each bag contains packages of treats to give the crew something to look forward to. The bags are labeled in the order they’ll be consumed—days 13/14 and 15/16 are shown here.

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It was a thrill to steer such an exciting boat; in the light breeze she still hit an easy 10 knots under spinnaker. The day after our outing, Azzam and her crew left for England. Here they are, in delivery mode. They’re a great bunch of guys and I wish them well in the race.

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