Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Gearing up for the Volvo Ocean Race Start - by Britton Ward

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Once again the Mediterranean port city of Alicante is host to the start of the Volvo Ocean Race. Since early October the six competing yachts have been assembled in the port each going through the rigorous scrutineering process required to be issued a valid certificate prior to the start of the race. In between measurement sessions there is a seemingly never ending job list with the army of dedicated shore crew working through the final tweaks to the boat, spars, rigging, canting system, electronics etc. Final race sails are being delivered for all teams and each needs to be hoisted and thoroughly checked before being accepted. Everything is double and triple checked so as to be 100% ready to go by the time the start gun fires on November 5th.
I recently returned from a week with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in Alicante. The race village is open and thousands of people are visiting each day to see the boats and visit a number of interactive displays and events about the race. It was my first opportunity to see our competitors so I spent a good deal of my time looking over the other boats trying to assess where their strengths and weaknesses may lie relative to our design choices. Besides competing in the Fastnet race and a short 250 mile qualification passage that was sailed in very light air and used primarily to test race systems and emergency techniques this new fleet of boats has had very few opportunities to go head to head with each other and as a result the strengths and weaknesses of the different teams is still a big question mark. Every team is busy observing each other and trying to handicap the fleet before the start. While the differences amongst the boats are significant the choices in sail design are even more so and that may ultimately be the biggest differentiator in boat performance.

Over the course of the boats design and testing we have worked very closely with the sail designers, navigators and meteorologists in analyzing expected scenarios for the race, and performing detailed weather routing studies using historical weather information to explore the effects of different sail styles and inventories on each leg in expected conditions. This visit provided an opportunity to review this information with a special focus on the recent anti-piracy modifications to Leg 2 and 3 and to consider what implications this has for sail design and sail delivery strategy in the coming months.

In addition to observing the other boats this visit provided an opportunity to check in with the measurement process and to make sure that everything is checked off and all the documentation in order before the race starts. The list of outstanding measurement items has dwindled to a handful that will all be taken care of in the next few days. The number of rules the boat has to comply with and the sheer amount of documentation required to be certified as a Volvo Open 70 is astounding. Throughout the design process we had to monitor the rules and be continuously aware of the requirements as any rework to correct a deficiency could be extremely expensive in both time and dollars and with so little sailing time available any downtime could have a big impact on performance. Fortunately, the measurement of AZZAM has gone without a hitch with the boat hitting every one of our target measurement values with no modifications required.

A week prior to the start of Leg 1 is the first in-port race and that requires its own amount of preparation. Six boats sailing at very high speeds in extremely tight confines will pose a significant test of the crews skills. Starts, mark roundings, short course tactics, spinnaker hoists, gybes and drops and inshore sail selection all have to be practiced and refined to be ready on the day. These maneuvers would be challenging with a crew of 15 or 20 so trying to complete them with a crew of 10 adds a whole new dimension to the racing placing a premium on communication and technique. I was fortunate to spend a few afternoons sailing in a range of conditions with the team while practicing these maneuvers and it is impressive to see how quickly the crew of AZZAM has integrated the inshore skill set into its repertoire.

The team has been meticulously recording data since the boat was launched and we have been working very closely with our navigator Jules Salter to produce the best possible set of polar speed and performance information for the boat. The polar information is displayed on board and utilized in on board routing simulations during the race so the more accurate this information is the better decisions can be made on the race course. This has been a continual process of comparing actual performance under different sail and appendage configurations to our detailed Velocity Prediction Program results and integrating this information to produce refined on board polars. This visit provided an opportunity to review the latest information and look at possible refinements to be completed before the start.

It is always valuable to have the opportunity to see the product of our labors in real life. AZZAM and her crew are ready to go on what may be the most closely contested Volvo Ocean Race ever. We will be closely watching the fleet in the in port race and throughout the first leg to assess our performance and to continue to support the team.