Nine Months in the Hot Seat

Navigators will play a big role in the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race

In the bowels of a Volvo Ocean 60, Dutch navigator Marcel van Triest slouches at his nav station, a Kevlar cave 3.5 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and 4 feet high. The temperature hovers near 90 degrees as the equatorial sun penetrates a 12-inch hatch located behind and above his head--his only window to the outside world. The prevailing scent is his odor, a pungent blend of saltwater and sweat. It's been weeks since his last proper shower. On a panel less than 2 feet away are LCD computer displays, repeaters, a satellite phone, assorted scribbled notes, and cheat sheets. In this enclosure, he spends 18, 25, or sometimes 30 hours at a stretch. Although 11 other crewmembers are
onboard, most of the time he sits alone, weighing the circumstances of every course change he recommends.

"This is a mental game--how much pressure you can handle," says van Triest. "When you decide to go one way or the other, the whole world’s watching, and ultimately the whole project is depending on it."

It’s a grueling way to make a living, but van Triest, 37, a navigator in the 32,000-mile Volvo Ocean Race that starts in Southampton, England, on Sept. 23, says he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s done the race three times, so he knows that for the next nine months he’ll be the one sitting in the hot seat, his teammates asking him to provide the answers, even when there are none.

There are many ways to win or lose this round-the-world race, says Mark Rudiger, 46, of San Francisco, winning navigator of the 1997-’98 edition of the Whitbread, the Volvo’s predecessor. But at least two things are needed to win, aside from avoiding calamities: having a fast ride, and sailing the quickest route. The responsibility for the latter falls squarely on the navigator.

"You have intense guys pushing really hard on the boat; they’ve given their blood and sweat, and they’ve done everything they can to make the boat go fast," says Rudiger, who will be the co-skipper/navigator for the Swedish Assa Abloy Challenge. "If you lose by going the wrong way, that’s a lot of pressure, especially on the young guys. To be a navigator at this level, you have to be a pretty secure and mature individual to deal with that day in and day out."

"The navigator has to put up his hand when something goes wrong," says Steve Hayles, 32, of the Bermuda-flagged Tyco challenge. Hayles, of Great Britain, has done the race twice, both times as the race’s youngest navigator, and admits that the job can be lonely. "The toughest part is that I definitely don’t do my fair share of physical work on the boat, so if I’ve been down below and the guys on deck have been wrestling with the boat in jib-top reaching conditions and something I’ve done has caused them to lose miles, that starts to grate on me."

At 52, Roger Nilson of the Nautor Challenge, a veteran of five races, is certainly not one of the young guys, but he’s the most experienced. The orthopedic surgeon and 20-year professional navigator from Sweden has sailed more of these races than any of the other navigators. Experience is a requisite to doing well, says Nilson, but because weather is so unpredictable, it guarantees nothing.

As an example, he recalls the 1997-'98 race in which he navigated Gunnar Krantz's Swedish Match to third overall. Bigger things were expected from the Swedish entry, which placed in the top half of the 10-boat fleet in five of the race's nine legs, but one strategic mistake in the opening leg eliminated any hope of them winning.
The day after the start, Nilson looked at the satellite picture on his screen and saw what he believed were overcast skies along the French coast. He thought this would prevent a sea breeze from developing and made the call to head offshore, expecting to find better wind. It was an educated gamble, but they wound up in an area with no breeze and before long, the leaders, enjoying the sea breeze, were several hundred miles down the 7,350-mile leg. "That was a big mistake," he says. "It certainly wasn't an easy call, and very disappointing because after that there was no chance of coming back in the overall standings. But you learn from your mistakes, and in this case I learned that it's dangerous to trust satellite pictures."

On the next leg from Cape Town to Fremantle, Australia, Swedish Match split from the fleet again. This time, the decision paid handsomely. The majority of the fleet remained close to shore, sailing the direct route in light winds, while Swedish Match bolted offshore. They quickly established a lead and were in front all the way to Fremantle. "The locals said to stay offshore," says Nilson. "But I guess the other guys didn’t ask the locals. In that case, I did my homework well."

Finding any strategic advantage is an important part of the job, says Nilson, so he and the other highly driven navigators will leave few stones unturned as they prepare for this race. Their information gathering begins years before the start, analyzing boat- and sail-design minutia during two-boat testing and studying historical weather data for each of the race’s nine legs.

Once the race begins, their responsibilities shift to the day-to-day collection of weather information received via satellite and monitoring the performance of the boat. Unless they’re power napping, they’re gathering data, making their own forecasts, monitoring other boats, determining the route they should sail, and continuously updating the skipper and his watch leaders. Even at the stopovers, they pour over weather models, dig for local knowledge, and plan their strategy for the next leg.

"The work is constant," says Spanish navigator Juan Vila, 42, of Germany’s Illbruck Challenge, who’s doing his fourth race. "On a typical day you can spend three to four hours on the routing itself, and it can take longer depending on the conditions. Upwind sailing is the worst because even something as simple as typing numbers becomes very difficult, especially if you’ve just come down from a sail change and you’re soaking wet."

Since his first Whitbread with the maxi Fortuna Light in 1989-'90, Vila has witnessed an increasing amount of computer hardware at his nav station. Today, he's no longer a navigator, plotting his boat's course in the traditional ways; global position satellites eliminated that task. He's a strategist, weather forecaster, and computer and electronics expert.
"Ten years ago there were no professional navigators as there are now," says Jean-Yves Bernot, 53, one of two navigators for the Norwegian entry Djuice Dragons. "Our job has been created because the meteorology is much more efficient. Now you must have a technical mind, and be able to make heavy decisions. These are the best navigators today, but this race will be so close that you must have the best."

Bernot, of Chatelaillon, France, is one of the best weather routers in the business. He’s provided onshore weather-routing services for numerous record breakers, singlehanded racers, and offshore multihull teams for more than 12 years. But he’s also a first timer in this race. His expertise is in understanding the weather and the routing software that most of the teams will use this year; his nemesis, he says, will be the hardware. "I’ve played with the software for so long that my brain works together with it," says Bernot, whose first and only circumnavigation was with Cam Lewis’s Team Adventure in The Race. "But if the hardware doesn’t work, I start to self-destruct."

The hardware, albeit slightly different on every boat, consists of marinized laptops, the boat’s electronics and instruments, and a slew of communication devices. They’re all tied together and none of it’s guaranteed to work in storm-tossed seas. Consequently, a navigator will also spend much of his time before the race building his system, testing it, and ensuring it can go the distance.

Information Overload
In the past, the race was a no-outside-assistance affair, which meant that weather information came only from the race office in England and over the radio and weather fax. But for this race, the rules have changed to allow navigators to access the Internet for weather information--anytime, anywhere. Before each leg, each team will register up to 10 public sites it intends to use. These sites will be reviewed and approved by race officials and provided to all other teams. Navigators who support the new arrangement say it makes for safer sailing, and allows them access to information that's more accurate. Those opposed argue that access to the Internet will overcomplicate the race and will be too expensive--one team has budgeted $70,000 to cover their in-race communication costs. Website content may also be difficult to police, they say, as onshore sources can secretly code content.

"It’s a balance because there’s less reliable radio and weather fax information available today," says Vila. "With the Internet you can pick up satellite loops and animations--basically a shot of what’s really going on where you are. You can pick up a lot more details and small-scale features than you can on a weather map or numerical forecast."

"It’s a bit of a pain, really, to have that much information," says Van Trieste. "My first race was more fun because there was so little information available. A lot of it was left to your own imagination--drawing your own weather maps, and looking around. Now, you have all this global output that’s very precise--it’s not necessarily correct, but very precise--which leaves little room for imagination."

Nilson believes that the navigators will be forced to spend more time on the net, and consequently less time sleeping. "You can go 35 hours before you start hallucinating and you can’t function anymore," he says. "And when that happens you make mistakes."

With the race’s new course consisting of more, shorter legs sailed where geography influences weather and tides (see "Chutes and Ladders," p. 27), the time demands placed on this year’s navigator will be the highest yet. Burnout was a major factor in previous races, and all the navigators agree that this time it could be worse.

"It’s a two-man job now, unquestionably," says Rudiger, who couldn’t find a suitable backup. "It’s gotten overwhelming with all the research needed on the climatological side of things and upgrading software and sail shape programs. Somebody’s got to be on it all the time, not only on the boat, but ashore."

Two syndicates hired two full-time navigators each early on. Other teams will bring tacticians on board to backup their navigators during the shorter legs where boat-to-boat tactics may play a larger role than routing. For the duration of the race, Vila has 30-year-old Ian Moore, one of Great Britain’s rising young navigators and Bernot has 26-year-old Wouter Verbraak, who will divide his time between gathering data and sailing the boat.

Van Trieste would prefer to have a partner onboard Team SEB, but he, like Rudiger, was unable to find a suitable assistant. "I would love to have a second," he says. "But it’s a small field, and thus very difficult to find a second person. However, if you do bring on a second person, you have to be very careful because it can dilute the decision-making process on the boat."

"A lot of what we decide strategy-wise has to do with sail choice and the performance of the boat," says Verbraak (see "Choose Your Weapon," p. 30). "When I’m constantly talking to the guys on deck and seeing what’s going on I have a better idea of what needs to be done and the guys are more likely to ask questions."

Hayles counters that if you have one more person below, you have one less on deck pushing the boat. He’s confident, that, along with skipper Kevin Shoebridge, they’ll get the job done.

"The navigator typically gets a bagging when things don't go well, but it's absolutely crucial that other people are involved in the decision making," says Hayles, who sailed half the 1997-'98 race with Lawrie Smith's Silk Cut before resigning in Auckland. Silk Cut was one of the pre-race favorites, but they'd failed to deliver in the race's early legs. Tension between Smith and Hayles had been mounting all the way to Auckland where Smith admitted that, on occasion, he had failed to take what Hayles considered the best route.
"There has to be trust, and to make it work over the long term you have to find the right balance with each other," says Hayles. "The skipper must understand what you're trying to achieve, and when they know you feel strongly about something they must be ready to back you."

Historically, the skippers and navigators who know each other best fair better in long ocean races such as the Volvo. It’s this familiarity, says Vila, that creates synergy and improves the efficiency of the decision-making process. This year, all nine skipper/navigator combinations are new, but Vila and his skipper John Kostecki have spent the most time getting to know each other’s quirks. They sailed together onboard George Collins’ Chessie Racing in the 1997-’98 race, and they’ve been fine tuning the Illbruck effort for nearly two years, longer than any other syndicate. "They’ve developed the deepest relationship, so they have an advantage," says Nilson. "And history shows that the first syndicate to start is the favorite."

Hayles, Rudiger, and van Trieste all point to Vila as the one they’ll be keeping a close eye on. But in the same breath, each admits they know very little about the others, apart from their reputations. "That’s true," says Vila. "I only sail with them when I sail against them, so I only know of their style. Mostly, the differences between us comes down to whether we’re more conservative or more extreme in our decision making--but in the end we’re all risk takers."