Possessed By The Speedo

Fast boats need fast drivers. The Volvo 70 is no exception, and in this upcoming round-the-world endurance contest, a different breed of helmsmen are stepping in to deliver the "mail." A feature from our October 2008 issue

Ericsson Racing Team 368

Guy Salter/ Ericsson Racing Team

There are only 11 guys onboard a Volvo Open 70. Discount the media guy who can do nothing more than wash dishes and record the experience. That leaves 10 sailors to sling a 70-foot surfboard 37,000 nautical miles around the world. That's not a whole hell of a lot bodies given the physical punishment these boats deliver. Not to mention all the back-breaking sail hauling required after every maneuver.

With four on deck at any given time there's no room for one-trick ponies, no matter how good the trick. To gain entry into this rarefied adventure world nowadays you have to be an all-rounder. One look at the all the respective team rosters confirms that this is the most diverse collection of offshore sailors the race has ever presented, and this is especially true of the helmsmen. They're young, they're fast as hell behind the wheel, and for most of them, ocean racing is a whole new gig.

"These are high-speed boats-as close to a multihull as you can get on a monohull," says Jordi Calafat, a Volvo Race rookie with the two-boat Spanish entry, Equipo Telefonica. "You always have to have a good feeling."
That feeling, in the early days of round-the-world racing, came with grizzled seamen who'd gained experience from transoceanic deliveries and offshore races. But the introduction of the VO70 for the last edition required a slightly different sort of skill set, one you'd get from more extreme-style sailors.

Enter the new-breed Volvo helmsmen, guys like Calafat, a 470 medalist, and numerous others from the high-performance dinghy, skiff-sailing, and multihull arenas. Calafat's compadres with Equipo Telefonica Blue include 2008 Tornado Gold medalist Fernado Echavari and 49er silver medalists Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez. Talk about bringing in the ringers.

"It wasn't the case 20 years ago, and because of this, the level has stepped up enormously," says Magnus Olsson, arguably the oldest and wisest sailor in this year's fleet. Olson, age 59 (he'll turn 60 during the leg from Rio de Janeiro to Boston), won the race with EF Language in 1997-'98, and is sailing his eighth race, leading Ericsson Racing's Nordic team.

"The best guys these days come from Olympic sailing-they've won gold medals or have done a lot of short-course racing and have made a name for themselves. They get into offshore racing and they enjoy it. They find they can cope with the conditions."

Common traits? Try a hyper-competitive drive and the sharp distaste for losing, says Olsson. "These are guys that take every opportunity to gain a centimeter here or a centimeter there-just as you do in the Olympics or the America's Cup. They're possessed, almost to a fault."

But not all Olympic sailors are cut out to be Volvo helmsmen, cautions Olsson. They must like sailing on the ocean, sailing at night, and with a group. They must be into the team spirit, which ultimately determines the success of these Volvo campaigns. "They're not alone on a Finn dinghy anymore, he says. "They can't be individuals."

That much is true, says Tony Mutter, helmsman with Ericsson Racing's International Team, who at the age of 39 is on his fourth Volvo. He won it last time around onboard ABN AMRO One. The boat was stacked with top-shelf drivers, including 18-foot Skiff champion Rob Greenhalgh, of England, who at the age of 28, walked onto the program with barely any real offshore experience.

"Everyone has to fit into a team so you can't put yourself on a pedestal," says Mutter. "You won't last 10 seconds in this business; it's not one person to make the boat fly, it takes a team. It's up to everyone to make it go because if you're weak in one area you're a weak team."

Casting sailors into the helmsman's slot, however, isn't a matter of simply drafting the fastest guys from the Olympic 49er circuit. "It's a hard role to fill because you're dealing with strong egos and you have to understand them and what makes them think positively," says Olsson. "To get the best out of a helmsman you have to know how he's thinking by reading their mind, and that's not easy."

There are, as one would imagine, good and very good helmsmen, and that discrepancy does make all the difference in a race in which leads and losses on the racecourse come from mere decimals on the boat's speedometer. The best guys, says Mutter, have a natural ability to feel the boat and can steer as well at night as they do in the daytime. But even in broad daylight, driving the boat at top speed for long stretches is sometimes impossible.

The unpredictable behavior of the Volvo 70 demands a helmsman's full attention. In its second, generation it is a more powerful machine, especially in light to moderate winds given the allowance for a masthead Code Zero. On these boats, unlike the Whitbread 60s before them, the apparent wind is rarely-if ever-from behind. With the apparent wind forward, spray and walls of water sweeping into the cockpit is relentless. Turn the boat low to catch a break and you're sailing in the wrong mode. Even when the true-wind angle is at 140 or so, the boats are going so fast that the apparent wind is coming from 60 to 80, so the water is still coming straight into the cockpit.

"You can never rest," says Olsson. "As soon as you try to get sheltered you go low and it lacks performance. You have to be very aggressive all the time."

When the boat is toeing the line between control and high-speed wipeout, the veterans-like Mutter and his teammate Stuart Bannatyne, who's considered one of the best downwind drivers in the fleet, tap into the helmsman's sixth sense.

"There are certain times at speed when you instantly lose your other senses," says Mutter. "Even if you're wearing a helmet you can't see because there's a wall of water coming at you, you can't hear and the only thing you can rely on are the two feet you're standing on to get the feeling of your feet on the boat, and sometimes that's all you can do to steer it to speed-you have to feel the heel angle of the boat."

Turn off the lights and it gets insane.
"You'll be sailing along at 30 knots in the middle of the night and you can't see the instruments or wind angle, but you do know the heel," says Mutter. "Say you're sailing VMG and you're heeling at 8 degrees, you know what that feels like and then you're going around the waves you know what the upper and lower heel limits are."

Gusts are virtually invisible at night and it's impossible to anticipate them. Sometimes, says Calafat, it's impossible to bear away to bleed off the speed if you're caught with too much sail area. "You want to slow down a little bit, but it's not an option. In these moments you need to be very concentrated to keep things from going very wrong," he says. "You can break a sail or something much worse, which you can't afford to do in this race."

When conditions are at their extremes, the average turn on the helm is much shorter than it was in previous races. Two hours at high speed is about max, says Mutter. It's harder to steer these boats fast for long periods of time, especially at certain wind angles. "You know when you're stale and it's time to get off. It gets obvious. Someone might come up on deck and give you a bit of a look. But some days you're on and some days your off-it's like that for everyone."

As much as the race is portrayed by its organizers as a high-speed downwind thrashing, the new route, which takes the fleet to India and China, will be heavily played out on the lighter, more unstable equatorial latitudes, putting a premium on light-air driving skills as well. With masthead Code Zeros, and multiple headsails, the Volvo 70 needs less than 10 knots to be sufficiently powered, but getting quickly through the inevitable drifting spells can be just as mind bending as a blitzing 24-hour record run. Concentration and patience don't come easy to those accustomed to high-speed sailing.

"Different people excel in different conditions," says Olsson. "Someone who is better in light air might be more relaxed and they can sit there and be patient. Some have the personality of being eager and have a lot of aggression and they're often better in stronger winds, but you must have both."

Ericsson's International team has a long talent queue stepping behind the helm, including skipper Torben Grael who comes with five Olympic medals and a Volvo race under his belt. His Brazilian entry in the 2005-'06 VOR was his first foray into serious offshore racing, and given the small scale of his campaign, he showed he is perfectly capable of leading a winning entry. His starting line up includes Mutter and Brad Jackson, both cherry picked from ABN AMRO One, and Stuart Bannatyne, one of the best in the business. Race veteran Horacio Carabelli, 40, and 30-year-old Brazilian Olympic Finn standout Joao Signorini, who sailed with Grael's challenge in the previous race, bring aged wisdom and youthful experience.

Olsson, who will lead a young inexperienced all-Nordic Ericsson team, pegs Grael's squad as that with the greatest potential.

"I have a hard time seeing anyone beating them-they're so very skilled," he says. "They have five very good helmsmen and that's a good thing to have."

In the same breath, he calls out the Spaniards on Equipo Telefonica Black as their most formidable foe. Skipper Bouwee Bekking left his last Volvo campaign on the bottom of the North Atlantic so he's got unfinished business. His young Olympians know nothing but speed, and they won't rest until they get it.