Sailing on the VO70 at Fastnet by Alon Finkelstein

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Various members of the Farr Yacht Design team have recently traveled to different countries in Europe in support of our VO70 design and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. PatrickShaughnessy and Russ Bowler were in Italy for the commissioning of the boat, Bryan Baker was in Portugal for sail testing sessions, Chris Cochran and Jim Schmicker were in England for engineering and performance analysis and Luke Shingledecker even joined the crew for the 2000 mile qualifier voyage.

However it’s not too often that an opportunity to compete in one of the most epic and challenging offshore yacht races, on one of the most advanced, hi-tech and fastest racing yachts presents itself. So when the invitation came from the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team for me to join the crew for the Fastnet race, I leaped at the opportunity with much excitement.

The race itself was the ideal platform to test the crew, boat and sails and gain valuable practice in the lead up to the start of the Volvo Ocean Race in late October. It was, in fact, the first time that the full crew had raced together as a team. Our competition in the Volvo 70 fleet came from Groupama4 and Team Sanya, both of whom are also gearing up for the 2011/12 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.

Beating out of the Solent in 20 knots of wind was quite a spectacle with +/-350 other boats around! The main focus at this point of the race was avoiding collisions while also keeping a close eye on our nearest competitors. Most of the first day was spent beating and tight reaching down the south coast of England in moderate breeze and favorable tide. With excellent tactics and savvy local knowledge, skipper Ian Walker and navigator Jules Salter expertly guided us to the front of the pack.

Early on day two of the race, at the western tip of England we tacked onto port and headed straight for ‘The Rock’ on a beam reach. It was interesting to compare our boatspeed with that of Groupama4 who were always within sight of us. Suffice to say the differences were small. The wind started off light/moderate but as the day progressed the breeze freshened until it peaked around 30 knots right at the Fastnet rock. This was the most frantic and exciting part of the race, with frenzied sail changes, extremely bumpy seas, low visibility and numerous hectic maneuvers. This was the part of the race where the 100 foot canting keel maxi, Rambler, capsized after breaking her keel. They were only about an hour ahead of us at the time, but unfortunately we couldn’t see them in the mist, fog and darkness and we only heard news of the event a few hours after it actually happened and everyone was safely rescued. Having lead from the start, we were a bit disappointed that Groupama4 was able to sneak by us at ’the Rock’, but with over 200 miles of racing left there were still plenty of passing lanes.

After rounding the offset mark at Pantaenious Buoy the two state-of-the-art Volvo 70’s blasted back towards the Isles of Scilly at break neck speed in excess of 25 knots with Team Sanya not far behind. After rounding the Isles of Scilly we bore off onto a run for the home stretch to the finish at Plymouth. With Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing closer to land and Groupama4 further offshore we were able to pick up some more favorable tide and regain the lead, which we held all the way to the finish, fending off our French rivals by less than 5 minutes. We crossed the finish line after 1 day, 18 hours and 39 minutes (an average speed of 14.3 knots) setting a new course record for monohull yachts.

It goes without saying that for the crew preparing for the Volvo Race, there is nothing more valuable than time spent on the boat. The same applies to designers as well. Nothing can better prepare you for the many decisions you need to make as a designer of a racing yacht as it pertains to flow physics, forces, sail trim, layouts and load cases, than being out there on the water to experience the conditions first hand. It is out on the water where you are reminded in the most vivid terms that sailboat racing is not just a bunch of numbers or simulations on the computer screen, but real life action and drama where mistakes or miscalculations can be the difference between winning and losing but more importantly can sometimes cost life or limb. You are also reminded how physically challenging Volvo 70 yachts are and how much muscle, stamina, experience, fitness and concentration it takes to sail these boats at the elite level.

In our quest for victory in the Volvo Ocean race, we are off to a promising start. With further practice and development we will continue to improve. Our crew is top notch, the boat and sails are looking good and the team is strong. It was an honor and a privilege to compete in the Fastnet Race and many thanks to Ian Walker and the entire Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Volvo 70 team for having me on board. It was a once in a life time opportunity for me and I’m ecstatic I was there to experience it first hand.

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