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 much actual rest did you get?
My normal pattern was I would get six forecasts a day. And I’d structure my life around the forecasts. So when a forecast would come in, I’d wake up, download the forecast, typically as a grib file, then I’d often edit it to correspond with what I observed. Because obviously you have 100-percent certainty to what you see in terms of sea state and sky and the weather. So sometimes you’d have to edit the file to speed up a front or slow it down a bit to correspond to what you have.
Then I would run the routes. And then you have to adjust the routes for risk. You have to tinker with the computer routes enough so you understand them…perfectly. And the way you know you understand it perfectly is if I can explain it to you as a sailor, which I would do with every watch change.
And that’s the classic mistake people make with computer routes. They see this route, and they think it’s optimum for some reason, and they think they should follow it. And then suddenly they’ll get a shift. They’re in a squall, they’re on a beam reach, they can go anywhere. Well, where should they go? And they think, well, this is the optimum route, we’ll stay on it. Well, that’s the optimum route assuming a set of conditions. What’s the objective of the exercise? And if you had the ability to move the boat in any direction 20 miles, which way would you move it? Often, it’s not the direction of the optimum route. And you have to understand that, and you have to explain it to the crew so they understand it, and only then will the crew do the right thing due to all the small changes that happen on deck.
So after walking the watch captains and skipper through the forecast, and getting their agreement on the plan, then briefing the crew, I’d try to get a half hour or 45-minute nap before the next forecast. So I try to get four hours of sleep during the day in the form of naps. And the naps take place just before each forecast. So my world is just forecast-to-forecast.
A Volvo 70 and a Groupama are obviously very different animals. From a navigator’s point of view, is it a different game? I mean, a really different game?
It’s really different. The differences are, you have this incredible speed, which is a huge tool, and you can consider things that you could never consider on a Cal 40 or a sled or even a V70. So you have this enormous tool kit. If you can get the boat sailing in 18 knots of wind—it doesn’t take much—and a flat sea—in other words, if you can stay in front of the front, you’re smokin’, and you have so much speed. Winds from 18 knots to the high 20s, that’s fine, you don’t need them but it’s fine. Winds over the high 20s, you’re not really looking for it. And then winds over the low 30s, you don’t want. Even if it’s flat sea state, you really don’t want that much wind. So my guidelines were to try to keep us below 35 knots of wind.
And then you have this incredible sensitivity to sea state, which is really important, but complicated. You look at the wind waves, which of course are created by the wind you’re in, and that’s a function of fetch, and the wind speed. Then you look at the swell, which may be caused by the wind you’re in, but those are the waves that are coming at you from a distance, based on what’s happened before. And then you look at the crossing angle between the two, because even if you’re running, and you have a favorable sea state, where you have wind waves from behind and swell from behind, but they have a crossing angle of 90 degrees, you still have a problem. Because that crossing angle will throw up mounds of water, and even though the swell or the wind waves by themselves would be fine, these piles of water they throw up are going to force you to slow down. So you obviously look at the wind, but you separately have to look at the wind waves and the swell and the crossing angle to decide where are those regions of water that are going to force you to slow down.
You’re talking about the big tri. What about a Volvo boat?
You get on a Volvo boat with a bunch of Kiwis, and it’s pretty much let ‘er rip. Occasionally, you’ll be slowed by the sea state, but mostly you just let her rip into it. Only very occasionally will you have a situation where you’re on a powered up reach into a head sea and you have to slow down to keep the rig in the boat. But you mostly don’t worry about the slamming loads. You just let her slam.
Whereas the multihull, you really have to nurse it and avoid the bad conditions, and if you do have to slow down, you slow way down. And the thresholds are very, very sharp. You can have a head sea that’s due to an old swell, and if the encounter frequency is low enough you can just porpoise through it. But if the encounter frequency gets a little bit faster, suddenly you’re crashing, and you have to slow way down. And the difference can be really small. And you’ve got to calibrate that accurately, because you don’t want to sail extra miles to avoid something you didn’t have to avoid, and vice versa. So then what you do is you take that speed, and you take the fact that the boat is incredibly fast if you find the flat water, so you use that speed to pick your weather. I think we spent a total of about four hours, in the entire trip, in winds over 36 knots.
Wait, what? That’s unbelievable. Say that again…
The goal was to sail in winds less than 35 knots. And we ended up with 12 hours over 34, 3.5 hours over 36, and an hour over 38 all the way around the world. That was the goal.
That’s a credit to you having the boat precisely where you wanted it to be, right?
Yeah, but it’s not untypical. Folks who focus on that are able to achieve it, because you have the speed. But that’s what’s different between when ENZA and Commodore Explorer were first doing it, is they weren’t as focused on that tactic, of using your speed to pick your weather. They were kind of in the Volvo mode: We’re sailing in the Southern Ocean, deal with it.