Horses For Courses

Olympian-turned-ocean-racer Jonathan McKee breaks down the key differences between the Volvo Ocean Race and the Vendee Globe. "First Beat" from our December 17, 2008, /SW eNewsletter/

Aboard the Volvo entry Telefonica Blue (above), many hands make light the work.

Aboard the Volvo entry Telefonica Blue (above), many hands make light the work.Gabriele Olibo/ Telefonica

These next six weeks will be a fascinating time in offshore sailing. The armchair watch captain can follow the Vendee Globe and Volvo Ocean Race at the same time. This raises the obvious comparison between the two races and the boats themselves. Having sailed both, I can say the craft are substantially different, though from the same "family" of powerful, open-class monohulls. The larger difference, of course, is the format; singlehanded vs. fully crewed, and non-stop vs. with stops. These factors alone deliver two very different experiences.

The Volvo Open 70 is essentially a larger version of the IMOCA Open 60 sailed in the Vendee Globe. The Volvo rules are more restrictive in many areas, including the use of water ballast (six large tanks on the Open 60 vs. one small rear tank on the Volvo 70), construction scantlings (none for the 60s), rig dimensions (fixed for the 70s vs. open for the 60s), keel cant angle, and bulb weight. The 60s have very few rules, basically length and maximum heel when fully canted/ballasted. Thus, a number of ocean-racing innovations have been developed or fine-tuned in this arena, including canting keels, rotating wing masts, multiple water ballast options, and planing hulls. The Volvo 70 is a bigger boat, and the loads are much higher, but there are a lot more restrictions. In the end, the boats are more similar than one might think, especially in this second generation.

Jean Marie Liot/ DPPI| |Kapsch skipper Norbert Sedlacek gets to know his self-tailing winch in the 2008-2009 Vendee Globe.| Far overshadowing the difference between the boats is the difference between the crews. The fact that Vendee skippers have only themselves to rely on drives many design decisions and dictates the fundamental approach toward the race. The most obvious consequence of sailing singlehanded is that the autopilot is steering the boat almost all the time. In typical conditions the skipper may hand steer two to three hours per day. Thus, the boat has to be set up to handle well under pilot, which means a balanced rig and some tolerance for course deviation. It also means that the boat will encounter bad waves that might otherwise be avoided by hand steering. The Volvo guys try very hard not to hit bad waves in the wrong way, while the Vendee guys accept it as a fact of life. The boat has to be able to take it.

Sailing alone also means one person has to perform all the boathandling maneuvers. Nearly all the sails are on furlers (or snuffers for the spinnakers) because this is the only way one person can get the sail up and down without damage. However, each maneuver still takes a lot of physical effort, so singlehanded racers try to be smart about the number of maneuvers they perform. Volvo teams, on the other hand, change sails more often-- because they can, and because of the performance increase from having the right sails up nearly all the time. Vendee racers will try to find a sail combination that will work for a long stretch, maybe taking a reef in and out, since changing sails every two hours would leave them irreversibly exhausted. In some conditions singlehanded sailors change sails a lot, but not as frequently as the Volvo teams.

Another consequence of sailing by yourself is that you have to do every job on the boat. On a Volvo team, the skipper and navigator can focus on course selection and tactics, there are specialist helmsmen and sail trimmers, and other guys who mostly grind, handle the sails, and move heavy things around. The Vendee skipper's to-do list includes all of this and more. It doesn't matter how fast you are going if you go in the wrong direction, so they spend a lot of time downstairs analyzing the weather. You also have to do all the maintenance and repairs by yourself, whereas the Volvo team has guys that can do this without disrupting the sailing of the boat. You do all the stacking by yourself, so the packages have to be a bit smaller, and more sails stay belowdecks. And you have to sleep, eat, communicate, and do all the other chores that go with being on a super high-tech racing boat. So you can see why there is so little time for hand steering (or sleeping). The Vendee is about managing your time so you are doing the right thing at all times to help your long-term performance. You tend to get a lot less sleep! In contrast, the Volvo guys work hard for their four-hour watch, trimming constantly, changing sails a lot more, moving the stack, and always hand steering. But then you get four hours off (unless interrupted by a maneuver) so you actually get a lot more sleep, even though you are working hard during your watch.
The other important difference between the two races is the format: the Vendee is non-stop and the Volvo has stops, lots of them. The non-stop format forces Vendee teams to prepare and sail their boats much more conservatively than their Volvo brethren. If you are asleep and you keep too much sail up during the 40-knot squall and you break your mast, your campaign is finished. Even small breakages can have a very negative effect because you have to fix everything by yourself, which detracts from your sailing. On December 15, J.P. Dick was leading the Vendee when damage to his rudders forced him to slow and take an unfavorable course in order to effect a repair. If you have a breakage in the Volvo, on the other hand, you can still win the race. You may suffer in that leg, or even have to drop out, but that is only one leg out of 10, and you can make up the points later. You also have the whole crew to help with repairs and maintenance, so the boat can often be sailed well during the repair.

The social dynamic aboard a Volvo boat is wildly different than that aboard a Vendee boat. On a VOR 70 you have 10 other guys with whom to talk and share experiences, sailing and otherwise. You may get bored at times, but you never really get lonely, and you learn a lot of new jokes. You might not always be best mates with all of your shipmates, but at least you have shipmates, and this makes the experience fundamentally more social. Obviously the Vendee skipper is all alone, and this is one of the most challenging parts of the race. You go through all of the emotions that come with being in a very intense situation, and you have nobody to share them with. It is not for everyone, and it takes its toll on even the toughest and most independent soul.

The Volvo Ocean Race and the Vendee Globe are both fantastic challenges. They highlight different skills and different mentalities. Both are incredibly hard to win. It is a pity they are going on at the same time, but on the other hand it is interesting to see the contrasts between them unfolding in real time.