Volvo Ocean Race: Scheds Change the Game

Position reports and fleet tracking for ocean races are fine and good for friends, fans, and the media, but on the racecourse, knowing what others are up to dilutes the challenge. Gaining Bearing from our July/August 2012 issue.

Ken Read on PUMA

Ken-Read-PUMA

Sometimes bad news is delivered with a good meal. The author (right) gives news of the position report to PUMA Ocean Racing bowman Casey Smith.Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing

When I started ocean racing right after college, in the heyday of SORC, we just sailed the course. Like Peter Blake tells it in his book, Blake's Odyssey, we often had no idea how we'd done until we saw how many masts were at the dock when we got back in. The way we sailed back then was by doing what we thought was best. Those days are gone. Long gone. For better or for worse, position reports and race trackers have forever changed ocean racing.

The Volvo Ocean Race is a perfect example. When that position report lands in our lap every three hours, we know exactly where everyone else is, which, if you think about it, makes the whole thing more like a series of day races and less like one big long ocean race. The reports definitely change how we sail the boat and have a huge effect on tactics, positioning, and psyche.

The thing about these reports is that they also make it a heck of a lot harder to break away but a bit easier to cover. When we get splits and see something in the report that we don’t like, we can zoom back to check in with the fleet. If we’re ahead, we can use the reports to control another boat (somewhat), which means this isn’t a pure ocean race anymore.

They also have a big impact on the highs and lows of the crew. It’s amazing how cued in some of the guys are to them. I’m convinced Ryan Godfrey, for example, has an internal body clock that runs according to the scheds. He knows within 30 seconds that one is coming in, and will start asking for it before it even shows up in the nav station. Mentally, as you can imagine with a boatful of guys like Ryan—guys that hate losing, mind you—a single report can have an effect on all of us, if it’s not managed properly.

For example, if we’re heading to a long-term gain and the position report shows a short-term loss, I can, for sure, see the psyche of the guys on deck take a little dive as soon as they get the news. That’s when I have to bring out the pom-poms. If I know a bad one is coming, I start selling it as what it is—a short-term loss. Without that sales pitch, the boys may be hanging their heads and thinking, “We’re getting our ass kicked.”

And when it comes to delivery, sometimes there’s no hiding the hard news. If I’m down below, and I don’t report it right away, some of the guys get bummed out—they know I’m hiding something. I’ll get on the little microphone downstairs—we have one speaker on deck and one below—and talk about boatspeed, performance, angles, and anything else I can think of. Then I’ll casually drop in the sched news.

As much as we sometimes despise the position reports, we use them to our advantage every day. Take, for example, the last day and a half of Leg 6, from Brazil to Miami. We were doing everything we could to keep ourselves between Camper and South Beach—you know, the ol' basketball advice about staying between your opponent and the hoop. When we got into the Bahamas, for some reason Volvo started issuing hourly position reports. As we rounded Great Isaacs, we couldn't see Camper. Even though there wasn't much racecourse left, an hour split could have been disastrous. But once we started getting the hourly position reports, we knew we had to tack upstream into a covering position.

The reports also give us the instantaneous wind direction and speed of the other guys. Modern-day whiz-bang spreadsheet navigators can take this data and do magic with it. We have an Excel spreadsheet with a line of 20-plus things, and from only few bits of information—latitude, longitude, windspeed, and direction—we can figure out how far they went, where they went, what their true-wind angle was, and on and on. We use every one of those to figure out if they have more wind or not, so in effect we’re also using them to validate the weather GRIB files. But the wind information is only a snapshot. It’s not an average over the three hours, so a lot of times we have to remind ourselves that more wind or a different angle could have simply been a random puff.

Sometimes the position reports can provide critical clues to something we're not seeing in the weather files. Leg 1 was a good example. We had a 10-mile lead over Telefonica going around Fernando de Noronha, and we went straight for a while, tight reaching, and they went high. They lost 4 or 5 miles to get up to the high lane, and then, all of a sudden, were chewing us up doing higher angles and better speed. They kept gaining mile after mile, and sure enough, there was a transition line of clouds between the two of us that didn't show up in any weather information. It wasn't showing up on the satellites very well either. So we spent three-quarters of a day working really hard to get to the left of that line, even though it was already too late. We wouldn't have known it was there if it weren't for those position reports. If we had reacted to the reports sooner, the outcome would have been different.

There’s a safety element that comes with using race trackers for other distance races—one that makes me really uneasy. A lot of race organizers are using satellite trackers, broadcasting positions to friends and the fleet 24/7. Pretty much all the big races are using trackers, but the equipment is sometimes unreliable. Batteries die, the units get washed overboard, and organizers just automatically assume that when the tracker stops transmitting it’s because the equipment is broken. And therein lies the problem. If they’re being used for safety and monitoring the fleet, then they can’t go down as often as they do.

The Rambler_ incident in the Rolex Fastnet is a good example of where people almost died, and at least for me, there was tracker failure complacency. I watched the tracker as _Rambler rounded the Fastnet lighthouse, and when the reports stopped coming from the boat, I assumed the transponder failed. Too often they stop working, and the organizer goes, "Ah, the tracker is out." It's a bit like crying wolf: At some point, people will assume a tracker is broken when, in fact, something far worse may be happening. If race organizers are going to rely on these transponders for safety, in addition to position updates, they have to work 100 percent of the time.

To read more about the Volvo Ocean Race, click here.
For more on Ken Read, click here.