Whether crushing speed records, nailing ocean races, or pioneering new technology, Stan Honey knows his position precisely. (Parts of this interview appear in our May 2011 issue.)
How did you get hooked up with Groupama in the first place?
It’s interesting, I asked (skipper) Franck Cammas the same question: “Why did you ask an American guy to navigate? Every sailor in France is a navigator, and they’re all fabulous.” And his answer was: He wanted a guy that was going to try and get it perfect. And that’s one thing about French navigators, which I understand having raced shorthanded myself, is that you can’t navigate the way you’d navigate a Volvo, where you process all the data. You try to adjust it all for risk, and figure out all the probabilities to have a perfect estimate of your own boat’s performance. And every single decision you try to get exactly right.
Whereas the French, and any shorthanded sailor knows, you have triage: You’ve got to navigate, you’ve got to do some steering, you have to change sails, you have to trim. So the way you navigate is you take a look at the data and then you have to jump by gestalt into the right answer because you don’t have the time to figure it out rigorously the way you’d do it in a Volvo. Franck knows that many of the French sailors will try to get a 95% solution, and then they’ll want do some trimming, they’ll want to do some steering.
Franck already had nine of the best multihull guys on the planet, and I was the only one on the boat whose full-time job was to focus all my energies on making sure we were in all the right places. With my limited ability to steer and trim, I wasn’t going to add much there. I think he wanted to do a round-the-world record attempt with a Volvo level of attention to the navigation decisions.
You actually took two shots at the record aboard Groupama, correct?
Well, the boat made three attempts, capsizing off New Zealand in 2008, but I was involved with Team Origin’s America’s Cup campaign and wasn’t on the boat. Once I came aboard, we had a start in November (2009), but we broke the boat in the South Atlantic and returned to France. We got a second start off on January 31st (2010), and that was the one where we ultimately succeeded (breaking the previous record, set by Bruno Peyron’s 121-foot catamaran, Orange II, by two days).
Unlike November, when the weather window was perfect, the January start wasn’t great. I’d say it was in the category of “acceptable” weather windows. But Franck had a commitment to do the Route du Rhum, so we needed to be back in France by a certain date. The January window was marginal, but in such a way that if it wasn’t going to work, we’d know early so we could turn around and get the boat back to France and on stand-by. So I was able to convince him to give it a run.
It’s a very complicated trip to the equator. There are five gates that we had to pass through, and if everything fell our way, we’d have a good time to the equator. And then the South Atlantic looked okay, not great. Franck agreed to go, but he also put in the threshold that we’d only continue past Cape Town if we were within a day of the record. I was good with that, so we sort of had a negotiated departure. And it worked out fine. On our November start, we had the fastest trip to the equator ever, but (the January) departure was the second faster ever, so we were delighted with that.
So now you’re in the South Atlantic. What happened?
Well, as I said, in November we timed it perfectly, and we had what looked like idea conditions in the South Atlantic. The ideal situation is to pick up one of the storms that are created over the mountains (in South America) and come firing out from the Rio de la Plata. If you get in front of one, you’ve got flat water and steady northwest breeze and you can take it halfway around the world. It’s typically not a problem staying ahead of it; the boats are fast enough. The only reason you lose it is that (the low) gets too far south. Then you get the terrible wind shift to the southwest, with horrible cross-seas, and the key is to reposition the boat for the next storm…but not be trying to make a lot of miles in it. Then, when the next storm comes, you get the beautiful northwesterly and flat water, and the idea is you take that all the way to the Horn. Unfortunately, in November, we got the storm we were hoping for, but there was a leftover swell from a previous storm that was right on the nose. It was small, only about 1.5 meters, and we were going into it at about 35 knots. But it was enough to crack the port ama, which is why we needed to stop for repairs.
In January, we had much worse luck, and our trip in the South Atlantic was very difficult. The high was split, and in that situation the safe move is to go west of the western low, because you know the western low is going to eventually merge. But I knew if we did that, we’d never get to Cape Town within Franck’s 24-hour threshold and that the trip would get called off. So I rolled the dice and went between the highs, and it only worked because Groupama is just magical in light air.
How light are we talking about?
Oh, six knots of breeze. And the boat would be making 12, 14 knots. So we managed to make it through the gap, the small trough between the highs, and eventually managed to get into the Southern Ocean. We got to Cape Town just a little over a day behind the record pace, so Franck was happy to keep going.