Bases Loaded

So, you want to campaign a Volvo Open 70. The 2008–09 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), a fully crewed around-the-world marathon, started on October 4, 2008, in Alicante, Spain, so you're out of luck unless your time frame is far downstream. As in, the next race. When the time comes, you could model yourself this way: You could start by buying the VO70 that holds the monohull 24-hour distance record
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So, you want to campaign a Volvo Open 70. The 2008–09 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), a fully crewed around-the-world marathon, started on October 4, 2008, in Alicante, Spain, so you're out of luck unless your time frame is far downstream. As in, the next race. When the time comes, you could model yourself this way: You could start by buying the VO70 that holds the monohull 24-hour distance record and hiring a world-class team to sail her. Then you could thoroughly test the boat, push it until it breaks, fix it, then break it again. Now you’re ready to integrate what you’ve learned with the new design rules and spend millions of dollars and more than 38,000 man-hours building a new one. A faster one.

That’s what Puma Ocean Racing, a first-time corporate entrant in the VOR, and skipper Ken Read did. Puma launched its new boat, il mostro, in April, and the team spent the spring and summer of 2008 learning to sail her. The natural question arises: Will their investments pay dividends?

Step aboard: It’s July, 2 1/2 months before the starting gun, and today’s objective is two-boat testing—drag racing in common parlance—to determine which boat is faster in certain conditions, flying certain sail combinations. To leeward is the “old” boat, Avanti, formerly ABN Amro Two, which sailed a staggering 562.96 miles in 24 hours—the current monohull record—during the 2005–06 VOR. Not bad, considering that VO70s were a new class in 2005 and didn’t benefit from the level of refinement enjoyed by the current generation.

Read, standing at the helm of il mostro, hails Sidney Gavignet, a watch captain who’s skippering Avanti today, on the VHF. Read calls for Avanti to fly a particular sail combination—slightly different than il mostro’s—and to sail a parallel course. At Read’s command the crew hustles to unfurl a massive masthead genoa, which is trimmed in tandem with a smaller jib. Wham! Both boats are off, power-reaching across Block Island Sound in 15 to 20 knots of breeze and 4-to-6-foot swells.

Wide swaths of surprisingly flat wake stream behind the boats as they sail at speeds in the high teens, occasionally punching into the low 20s. Read throws a glance to leeward at Avanti, noting the distance between the boats, and then concentrates. It’s obvious that il mostro isn’t forgiving. The trimmers establish the groove, making an occasional tweak but mostly letting Read trim with the wheel. A separation of several boatlengths develops, growing steadily as the boats rip down their respective runways. il mostro responds well to the building wind and seas, and soon her speedo reports sustained spurts of 20-plus-knot sailing before spiking to a jaw-rattling, glorious 23.5. Read glances astern again at Avanti and betrays a thin smile.

Avanti is a dream to drive,” says Read. “She’s got a wide groove, almost like she’s got training wheels. With il mostro, the training wheels were kicked off. il mostro can be an angry boat, but when you press the right buttons, she gives bigger rewards.” Read isn’t exaggerating; il mostro regularly accelerates 3 or 4 knots when the team presses these buttons.

“Okay, let’s slow down. At this rate we’ll be in Bermuda tomorrow morning,” Read jokes, though he’s not far off. “Let’s change to a fractional jib and sail back at a higher angle.” The command is rebroadcast over the VHF to Avanti, still “lingering” astern. Grinding handles spin, the bow passes through the wind, and powerful hydraulic rams swing il mostro’s canting keel through an 80-degree arch. When the tack is completed, the sail inventory—a ton to a ton and a half of Spectra and Aramid fibers—must be resituated. It takes the full crew to hump this saltwater-soaked “ballast” to weather, stack the sails behind paddle-shaped metal tubes, and ratchet them into place with come-alongs. Belowdeck, the other sails, crew gear, and provisions are also “tacked.” According to the stopwatch, a complete tack takes 10 minutes.

The new sail is hoisted and unfurled, and again the boats line up, this time sailing a higher angle and flying identical wardrobes. il mostro, now with a reef tucked in, obliterates the swells, sending saltwater blasting up in writhing columns. Three seconds later these blow astern, soaking the crew and sending a river through the cockpit, where it’s wetter than sailing a Laser.

As the boats sail, a familiar separation appears. Read and company are noticeably pleased, as they should be. It’s been two years since the last VOR, time enough for a significant route change, some design-rule modifications, and new refinements and innovations to have influenced this second-generation VO70. il mostro roars toward Newport, Rhode Island, her afterburners still aglow, before the team slows the boat down. By the time Avanti enters Newport Harbor, il mostro is almost packed up for the day.

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“The new rules produce slower boats,” laments Juan Kouyoumdjian, winning designer from the 2005–06 race (ABN Amro One) and the designer for Team Ericsson for the 2008–09 event. “Not much slower—maybe 3 percent—but since we’ve refined everything, the newest-generation boats are still about 5 percent faster than last time.” Kouyoumdjian has designed two new boats for the 2008–09 race for Team Ericsson, bringing his total count of VO70s to four; few designers are as intimately familiar with the VO70 rule. The changes he alludes to include an enforced maximum keel weight and more-stringent structural requirements for the hull, both of which are intended to address the structural problems that plagued the last race and culminated with the abandonment of movistar on Leg 7. The box rule may have gotten tighter, but, says Read, “no design rule can hold back innovation.”

Stripping weight from a boat’s keel bulb and adding it to its structure reduces stability and thus makes the boat slower. How much slower depends on how much weight was reallocated and what refinements are made—as well as what techniques are employed—to help offset the ballast change.

“Fixed-keel boats are seeking fractions of a knot with sail and helming trim, whereas VO70s can improve their boatspeed by several knots with the right combination of keel cant angle, water ballast, daggerboard deployment, sail combination, sail trim, and helming,” says Russell Bowler of Farr Yacht Design, the firm that designed the two Spanish-flagged Telefonica boats, as well as several of the 2005–06 competitors. “All the new boats will have daggerboards designed with the benefit of fluid dynamics simulation tools borrowed from the aerospace industry.”

One of the biggest design challenges facing the teams this year is a major course change. The fleet will call on ports in Asia and Southeast Asia, crossing the equator six times and rounding Cape Horn before finishing in St. Petersburg, Russia. This likely translates to more light-air upwind sailing than in previous VORs. The rules changes, plus the course changes and the inshore racing at seven ports (accounting for 20 percent of all points), pose a complex design challenge: Make the new-generation boats stout enough for surfing in the Southern Ocean, nimble enough for buoy racing, and close-winded enough to sprint in light, maybe patchy air.

“The new route has brought about a different focus for the sail inventory,” says JB Braun of North Sails’s ultra-elite Performance Racing Group and Puma’s sail designer. “There’s a lot more potential for closer-winded sailing, and there are a lot of unknowns, especially in the Indian Ocean, where we don’t have a high level of confidence in the weather-forecasting models.”

In response, the rulemakers are allowing the boats to fly one additional masthead “spinnaker.” According to the rules, each boat can carry 11 sails onboard at a time (excluding three storm sails), three of which can be masthead spinnakers. VO70s sail so fast that they generate their own apparent wind, so they rarely sail lower than around 90 degrees apparent; these flat-cut “spinnakers” are more like Code 0s or genoas than symmetrical chutes. There are certain measurement requirements that these spinnakers must meet, “but,” Braun adds, “there’s no rule saying when they can be flown.” For instance, a team might design a “spinnaker” to be flown when sailing upwind in light air—say, en route to India or China.

“My design brief was to make the boat as powerful as possible, but to also design it to be fast in a wider variety of conditions, including the in-port racing,” says Marcello Botin, of Botin and Carkeet, who designed il mostro. “The boat carries the maximum beam, and while the new rules impose some limitations, I think the boats will be much faster than last time.”

That’s impressive talk, given that several of the first-generation boats reported speeds in the 40-plus-knot range. But what sort of refinements can compensate for this year’s rule and route changes? A careful study of il mostro and Avanti, docked side by side at Newport Shipyard, illustrates what Botin means. il mostro’s daggerboards are noticeably taller, and her rig, built from stronger, higher-modulus carbon fiber, sports continuous-strand carbon-fiber Element C6 rigging and an upper diamond, which helps support the additional loads of the new masthead “spinnakers.” The bulky spreader cups and chunky-looking shroud terminals used on Avanti, have been superceded by a far more aerodynamic rig. Compare the doghouses and you’ll see that il mostro’s is smaller and sleeker. Belowdeck, il mostro’s “cabin” was designed to make it easier to stack movable ballast, which can translate to tons on the longer legs. As for the wider beam Botin alludes to, il mostro’s stern section appears to be at least a foot, maybe 2 feet, wider than Avanti’s. In VO70 parlance, beam translates directly to power, which translates to raw speed.

“We’re aiming for a lot of base hits,” says Read, borrowing a baseball analogy. “We could have brought in some sluggers and prayed that they hit home runs, but we’ve focused on getting many tiny details right instead of taking big risks.” Seeing the performance gap between the two Puma boats, it appears that Read and company were successful, but two-boat testing shows only part of the picture. It doesn’t offer any insight on how il mostro will stack up against this year’s fleet, especially the two-boat Ericsson and Telefonica campaigns, which have kept their programs rolling since the last race. These experienced teams will be hard for a newcomer like Puma to beat, “unless,” says Read, “we’re smarter and sail better.”

Now, on the eve of the October 4 start of the 2008–09 Volvo Ocean Race, images of the other boats are appearing, some of them sporting radical-looking bow-mounted spray rails. These rails, which have been used successfully in the IMOCA Open 60 class, help keep the bow up when surfing, helping to generate lift, but at a drag penalty. “Right now we don’t have spray-rail envy,” Read jokes. “But before the last race everybody thought the ABN Amro boats were crazy to use two rudders. After that first night out, nobody thought they were crazy any longer. Until we get out there, we won’t really know anything. But for now, I’m happy.”

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