“Hey David, do you have a life-insurance policy?” Ken Read asks, poking his head through the companionway of the Volvo Open 70 Puma Avanti as we pound through small-but-growing seas near Ambrose Lighthouse off New York City. Behind us, the evening glow of the Big Apple ignites, painting a prominent reminder of humanity on an otherwise empty canvas of ocean.
“No. Why do you ask?” I reply.
“Well, our bow is delaminating,” Read says calmly. “I’m not sure how much longer it’ll hold together. You might want to get on your cell phone and see if you can buy a policy real quick.” A wink and a thin smile follow this remark, but the sad truth hangs over our crew like the mare’s tail clouds that stretch across the sky: the bow is in fact delaminating, and our agenda for a 48-hour offshore shakedown cruise needs a quick reevaluation. Read is the skipper of the Volvo Open 70 Puma Avanti, ex-ABN Amro II in the 2005–06 edition of the race and the boat that currently holds the record for the most miles sailed by a monohull in a 24-hour period: 563. Read’s team purchased the boat to use as a training and testing platform until their new VO70 is launched in the spring of 2008. Currently, Puma is the only U.S.-flagged entry in the 2008–09 Volvo Ocean Race.
Three minutes later, Read emerges from the inky depths of the “cabin” and announces that we’re scrapping our intended offshore routing from New York to Newport, Rhode Island, and instead will navigate the East River into Long Island Sound, reaching Newport the sheltered way. I glance at the true-wind display. It reads between 12 and 14 knots, small change for a V70; likewise, the seas are a puny 2 to 4 feet—just enough to send the occasional errant blast of spray into the cockpit. The weather report indicates that conditions will build to 20 knots of air out of the northeast and 5-to-7-foot seas as the night progresses. But V70s are notorious for pounding, both upwind and down, and the worry is that the fo'c'sle area could become permanently deformed, or worse, if the boat is pushed too hard.
“What we’re dong here is a little asset management and preservation,” Read says, taking the helm. “We’re not in any danger, but we can’t afford to miss training time to a lengthy repair job. So we’ll sail through protected waters and still accomplish our goals for this trip. In fact, flat waters will be better for the tests that “Rudy” [Mark Rudiger] and I have planned.”
Without a single grumble from the crew, the masthead genoa is lowered and a big asymmetric “downwind sail” (V70s sail so fast that their apparent wind is never farther aft than roughly 50 degrees) is unfurled as Read pushes the control button for the canting keels, spins one of the dual wheels, and aims the bow at the bright lights of New York. Our boatspeed surges from 12 knots to a steady 15 to 16. Even at this speed, the boat feels absolutely stable. Soon the sled settles into a comfortable groove as we give chase to a massive container ship that’s also New York bound.
“OK, thirty seconds to a gybe,” Read abruptly announces. Crewmembers spring into position, the helm spins, and less than a minute later the boat is on a new course, rapidly clawing her way back up to target boatspeed. This continues for the next hour as Read and Rudy put the crew through their paces, never giving more than two minutes notice for massively complex maneuvers involving huge loads on the sails, the running rigging, and the grinding pedestals. This sort of sailing is simply unheard of outside the “major leagues,” but V70s are the grand-prix of offshore sailing. The crewmembers flew in from all over the globe to participate in this practice session, and while some are already signed on, others are trying to make the cut. Sitting around me are some of the world’s best sailors. In fact, our crew of 12 (excluding me) has the combined experience of dozens of America’s Cup campaigns and Whitbread or Volvo Ocean Races (“laps,” as the crew calls these tours of suffering and punishment), plus a staggering number of national and international class victories.
In addition to the crew tryouts are two other tasks: testing the sail inventory, and putting Puma’s new foul-weather gear through its paces. For the first phase of these tests, Read and company carefully evaluate each sail in each particular sea condition, wind speed, and wind angle in order to better understand what sails to build for next year’s race. Aboard is sail designer J.B. Braun of North Sails Performance Racing Group—the team that designs America’s Cup sails—as well as veteran Cup trimmers. Read himself is the VP of North Sails, and the shop talk regarding sail modifications and improvements is specific: “What would happen if a bit more tension is applied to the third batten pocket”; or “What would the leach area look like if the second batten down from the headboard was adjusted by two degrees?” I struggle to keep pace as an observer, but quickly realize that, compared to these guys, I’m barely a novice.
We spend the next hour flying an exotic combination of brand-new 3DL sails, while at the same time evaluating the combined effect of various daggerboard heights. Since V70s use canting keels, they need these daggerboards to avoid leeward slip as the boat charges through the water. I walk up to the shrouds (built out of PBO with a taffeta jacket) and look at one of the boards. Unlike a Laser’s simple centerboard, these carefully designed foil sections generate lift. Rudy and Read maintain a dialogue through the hatches that separate the helm from the nav station belowdeck, as notes are feverishly scribbled onto waterproof pads so they can determine the minimum amount of daggerboard depth needed to avoid leeward slip, yet avoid excessive drag.
Interspersing the conversations about sails is talk relating to Puma’s new gear. Preproduction samples were couriered to New York, arriving at the same time as the crew, and this cruise is the crew’s opportunity to provide their input before Puma ramps up their actual production line. “Alright guys, what’s working and what’s not? You gotta write this down for our debriefing when we get back to my house,” advises Read. “This is our one chance to make things right with this gear. If we don’t, and if we suffer during the race, it’s our own fault.” Tests involve sending guys up to the bow where they roll around on the deck as waves drench them. Then it’s back to the cockpit, where more notes are scribbled.
Soon, we sail under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge at a clip of 12+ knots, and the Statue of Liberty stands proud off our starboard bow. Listening to the onboard banter, it’s immediately obvious that there are more Southern Hemisphere accents here than American twangs. I smile to myself that while the Puma team may be the only American-flagged boat in next year’s Volvo Ocean Race, the boat, much like Ellis Island, welcomes “immigrants,” provided, of course, they possess world-class sailing CVs.
The Volvo Ocean Race is the toughest fully crewed around-the-world ocean race, having evolved from the fabled Whitbread races of the 1970s through the 1990s. The 2008–09 edition will make ten stops before finishing in St. Petersburg, Russia. Along the way, teams will call on ports in India, the Middle East, and China (two ports), as well as Brazil; the only U.S. stop will be Boston, Massachusetts, which the fleet will reach in May of 2009. Also new for next year’s event will be an eleventh crewmember whose sole responsibilities are updating blogs, taking still photos, and shooting video. This will be one of the hardest roles aboard, as the type of footage wanted by team sponsors and the media is the wet-and-wooly variety, the up-the-mast-in-huge-seas variety, the strap-your-ass-to-the-bowsprit-and-shoot variety—the sort of job that only a true glutton for punishment would seek.
Seeking punishment is a constant theme in crew talk. Listening to the stories of blasting through the Southern Ocean, of surfing down massive seas at 40+ knots, of gear exploding, of men getting hurt, of near sinkings, it’s apparent that the Volvo Ocean Race is only for the absolute hardest of sailing’s hard men. What has changed from the Whitbread days, however, is that the level of competition to score a crew position has skyrocketed, as has the technology behind the boats, the sails, the gear, and the loads on the equipment. Most mortal sailors might survive a huge offshore blow and call it good for the rest of their lives; these blokes might finish one Volvo race, beat it to Valencia, Spain, for a portion of an America’s Cup cycle, all the while looking for a ride for their next “lap.”
The sort of physique and mentality needed to enjoy sailing on the very edge of disaster is a rare combination involving the strength of Superman, the patience of Mahatma Gandhi, and the cunning of Bobby Fischer. Everyone must be able to float seamlessly from one position to the next, regardless of their actual title, and in all conditions, the gnarly and the becalmed. On average, these guys are huge, with arms the size of most football players' legs, and the aggression of a pit bull when called upon to spin the handles on the grinders or wrestle a huge sail up to the foredeck. (Bowman extraordinaire Jerry Kirby calls the Volvo Ocean Race the “WWF of sailing, ‘cause sometimes ya gotta get nasty with the sails and the gear.”) Yet this enormous amount of testosterone is perfectly balanced by a calm that is all to often absent from club regattas. Voices aren’t raised aboard Avanti, tempers don’t flare, and when patience or sacrifice is needed, not a single grumble is heard. Yet by looking at the crew’s faces, it’s dead obvious that each man, from the grinder to the navigator, is playing the mental chess game of trying to eke out an extra fraction of a knot of boatspeed.
For the men who sail these proud steeds, making laps is their reason for breathing, their mantra, and their profession. Because of this, the “lads” create a team atmosphere aboard that is extended to everyone, regardless of who has already made the cut and who hasn’t. Small overtures, such as complimenting each other on small tasks well handled, boost morale and create a positive environment. Listening to this talk, I realize that this sort of positive energy is what propels these guys to continue to work hard, day in and day out, as conditions grow from bad to worse. The result is a brotherhood, the likes of which I have previously seen only in teams of elite high-altitude mountaineers. And on boats as hopped-up as these, with the tremendous forces involved, a strong team atmosphere helps to draw the sting out of even the scariest jobs.
V70s are more machine than sailboat. Everything, from the smallest bolt to the mightiest genoa furler, is ultra light and built for speed. Belowdecks, the “cabin” is a pitch-black cave of unpainted carbon fiber (accessing your seabag requires a headlamp). The forward half of the boat comprises watertight compartments meant to preserve hull integrity, should the boat hit a submerged object or if it simply starts to come unraveled—as ours was threatening to do—from the sheer pounding and abuse generated by the massive sailplan. To mitigate disaster, the mast is surrounded by vertically running ties that originate at the cabintop and attach directly to the hull’s structural components. These literally hold the boat together in rough conditions when the mast tries to drive through the bottom of the hull and the chainplates try to compress inward.
The “saloon” area houses pipeberths and sail bags, with the “galley” situated directly in front of the mast. As far as creature comforts go—well, most backpackers carry more gear into the backcountry than these boats carry to sea: two burners heat up hot water for the freeze-dried fare that is an offshore diet. Moving farther aft is the saildrive engine, and beyond it is the nav station. Each sailor’s sea bag for each leg is smaller than the totes most landlubbers carry to the gym for a Tuesday-night workout. One can only imagine that using the head (located forward of the galley) must be like riding a mechanical bull when the boat lights up in big seas.
Abovedecks, the cockpit is wide and decked out with banks of jammers, rope clutches, and winches. Three linked grinding pedestals power the gargantuan winches; several smaller winches dot the rest of the cockpit, controlling the traveler and offering cross-sheeting options when the crew runs short on other solutions. Dual helms grace the stern area, complete with adjustable standing platforms to keep the driver level with the horizon when the boat really starts to heel. A single clip-in strop occupies the axle area of each wheel, offering the driver some degree of protection when huge combers submerge the decks.
These are not the sorts of boats that can be sailed casually with a pick-up crew. A single V70 is equipped with more line than most J/24 fleets. Simply trying to remember which line controls what piece of gear is tough when a sailor is well rested, but trying to keep on top of the nests of line that grow thicker after each sail change or gybe is almost impossible for someone who hasn’t spent days, if not months, aboard. Likewise, the foredeck and the bowsprit are equipped with numerous tack lines and hard points for flying everything from full masthead kites to tiny staysails. Aboard Avanti, Rudiger had key components such as the forestay hooked up to load cells. This information is immediately relayed to a laptop, allowing the team to gather data on the specific loads generated by specific combinations of weather, sail wardrobe, daggerboard position, and apparent-wind angles.
Soon we’re heading toward the East River and the first of seven bridges we need to pass under. Unlike other trips I’ve made through these waters, we’re running a full mainsail and a masthead genoa, ripping along at speeds typically reserved for powerboats. Before clearing the Brooklyn Bridge Rick Depp, Team Puma’s dedicated media man and a former cameraman for the hit TV show The Deadliest Catch, goes up the mast to make sure that we’re clear of obstructions. The fear isn’t so much the height of each bridge, but rather any painting or repair equipment that might be dangling below. A running dialogue begins between Read at the helm and Depp up in the air. Things are okay topsides, and the crew takes in the stunning views of Manhattan until Read decides to slow the boat down and furl the headsail.
After we clear a few bridges, the general confidence level with the bridge situation increases enough that Read turns the helm over to me while he sits nearby and scarfs down his homemade lasagna (since our original flight plan called for 48 hours, there was no need for freeze-dried stomach aches). The helm is perfectly balanced, and I wonder what the average commuter driving across one of the bridges must think of the massive red sails that are passing below. While we might not be going offshore, we’re still potentially charting new territory as the first V70 to cruise down this river and into Long Island Sound.
As soon as we’re clear of the last bridge, the headsail is unfurled and the watch system begins. The true-wind speed is a modest 10 to 12 knots, and we easily sail this fast, or faster, even though we’re not even trying. Of the six men on watch, two or three stand lookout while the rest of us catnap on the cockpit floor between tacks. When a tack is announced, each man leaps up and grabs the handles of a pedestal before madly spinning for maybe a minute. Then the catnaps resume. We continue this routine, enjoying a sky full of stars and the year’s first taste of autumn on this late-summer evening.
Lying in my pipeberth, I’m awakened by the sounds of the linked winch system groaning to life a few feet from my eards. I crack open an eyelid and realize that I’ve committed a cardinal sin of ocean sailing: I’ve overslept my watch. A single ray of light penetrates the depths of the ink-black cave, flowing in through the companionway. I quickly don my gear, grab my personal reserve of chocolate-covered espresso beans (an olive branch), and scramble up to the cockpit to take the verbal flogging that I know is fully deserved. Instead of hard words, I catch a few sly smiles aimed in my direction. Finally, a thick Australian accent asks if I’d had a good rest, and if the pipeberths were comfy: The tension evaporates, and a good laugh is had by all as I pass around my precious supply of caffeine and sugar.
A quick glance around reveals that we have passed through The Race and are now in Block Island Sound, with Watch Hill, Rhode Island, off our port bow. The seas have grown from the pond-flat water of the sound to clean ocean rollers, perhaps 4 feet at their highest, with winds hovering in the mid teens. A few more tacks, and we’re blasting offshore, a few miles east of Block Island, trying out a variety of sails and daggerboard positions. Again, notes are feverishly written, and the speedo regularly jumps into the high teens.
“David, come have a look below at the bow area,” says Neil Cox, an accomplished ocean sailor and a highly regarded boatbuilder. We scramble belowdeck and make our way past the first watertight compartment. Coxy opens the forwardmost watertight hatch, revealing a world of total darkness that he bisects with a flashlight. We wait for the bow to crash down hard—it isn’t a long wait—and watch aghast as the floor noticeably flexes, accompanied by a horrible crunching noise. “What’s happening here, mate, is that the core has separated from the skins of carbon,” Coxy explains. “When we get back, the job’ll be to peel off the inside layer of carbon, replace the core, and then put on more carbon. She’ll be fine, just a little heavier than she is now.” I lean into the forward compartment and place my hand on the floor, just as we crash down hard; my palm jumps perhaps an inch, the whole time maintaining contact with the hull. Coxy reads my mind: “It’s definitely not supposed to do that trick, mate,” he says with a laugh. We listen to the sickening crunch for a few minutes, fascinated by the sound of our boat straining, before closing the watertight doors and returning to the light. While we’re in no danger, it takes a bit of time to rid my mind of a noise I hope to never again hear.
We spend the next several hours running through sail changes, sometimes pointing, other times reaching off and running the boat’s powerful asymmetric sails. In the nearly flat waters of Buzzards Bay, under a sky full of sunshine, blasting along at peak speeds over 19 knots, nothing could be finer. I stretch out on the deck and start to romanticize the notion of “chucking a lap” when the boat makes an unexpected jerk and a surge of saltwater lands squarely on my face. I sit up and the entire crew explodes with laughter.
“We just wanted to make sure you got the full-value V70 ride,” explains Jerry Kirby with a smile. “You haven’t been out on one of these until you’ve gotten a little wet.” Laughter explodes from everybody, myself included, until Read gives the command to swap out sails and change our heading. The "lads” immediately spring into action, and the forward wardrobe is swapped out with staggering speed. Soon, we’re ripping along again, sending water flying in all directions. We practice for a few more hours before Read reluctantly announces that it’s time to head toward Newport. More sails are swapped out, and we beat back into a northeasterly breeze. Sitting on the windward rail, I’m mesmerized by the white torpedo that’s canted fully to windward and is keeping us “flat.”
“Hey David, you wanna drive?” Read asks. I scramble back (it’s tricky keeping your balance) and take the wheel under Read’s careful tutelage. The helm is absolutely responsive; even the slightest input is immediately discernable on the genoa telltales. The boat’s groove is fairly narrow with this particular sail-and-centerboard combination, and I take Read’s advice and drive slightly lower (perhaps 2 degrees) than normal to keep the speed up, all the while keeping a vigilant eye out for lifting windshifts. Sailing upwind, our SOG steadily punches into the 15-knot range and the Newport Bridge comes into view far sooner than I’d like. Compared with other high-performance fixed-keel boats I’ve driven, a V70, I imagine, feels more like an F-16 than a sailboat. I’m instantly hooked. “Normal” sailing will never be the same.
We charge into Newport Harbor, our bright-red Puma-logoed sails flying in stark contrast to the fleet of majestic 12-Meter boats that are out for day charters. While Newport’s America’s Cup era may have passed astern, Read and his team are keeping the town’s tradition alive and well, and will do Newport and the United States proud in next year’s Volvo … even if they have a few “downunda” accents aboard.
Special thanks to Ken Read and the entire PUMA Ocean Racing team for taking me along for the ride.
Posted: December 3, 2007