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Donkin on Sailing

2006 - Sailing with ABN Amro One

AMN Amro - click to enlarge

Sitting out on the rail during the latter stages of a blowy cross-channel race to Dieppe, I was ruing the day I decided that sailing might be fun. The misery is compounded when you’re drenched through and chilled to the bone with not a scrap of spare clothing for comfort.

This is the reality of ocean racing, quite unlike the glitzy media-soaked experience that greets the competing yachts in the Volvo Ocean Race on each of its stop-over ports between racing legs.

There was something schizophrenic therefore about the razzmatazz surrounding the recent in-port race off the Isle of Wight in contrast to the wild, punishing seas that had brought tragedy and destruction to two of the boats only days earlier. The crews and their skippers look so healthy it is difficult to imagine the extremities of wind and weather to which they subject themselves in what must be one of the world’s most gruelling sports events.

It seemed unreal just 24-hours after my bumpy channel run to be pushing through the kind of pit-lane huddles you see around Formula One cars at Monaco and Silverstone and stepping on to ABN Amro One, the Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed yacht that has established an unassailable race lead with just two legs to go.

I cannot think of any other world-class racing event where a handful of privileged spectators are invited to join the competitors as they race. Imagine sitting on the back of Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, chatting to him as he turns in to the finishing straight at Hockenheim. That was the deal on ABN Amro One where I was sharing the stern quarter with Tom Touber, the team’s director of shore operations and Dee Caffari, on the water for the first time since entering the record books as the first woman to sail single-handed non-stop around the world from east to west against the prevailing winds and currents.

During Caffari’s 178-day voyage her fastest recorded speed was 16 knots. Measure that against the built-for-speed carbon fibre Volvo racers that that have reached average speeds of 23 knots for a 24-hour run. The highest speed achieved by ABN Amro One is just short of 40 knots.

During the race the boat they call “Black Betty” in recognition of her carbon-fibre hull, reached 26 knots just before making the slickest of gybes in a 35-knot gust of wind strong enough to shred the spinnaker of the leading boat, Pirates of the Caribbean, just a few seconds ahead. For those who care about costs, that was £15,000 – and more importantly, the lead - blown away in an instant.

But money isn’t everything. How do you measure ABN Amro’s €40m investment in its two-yacht Volvo campaign against the loss of crewman Hans Horrevoets during the last seventh leg? Horrevoets had been sail trimming on ABN Two when a giant wave washed him off the back of the boat, injuring his head as he was pitched in to the sea. He could not be revived when his body was recovered 40 minutes later.

Today’s highly engineered ocean racers are moving so fast through the waves that hitting several tons of water is almost like smashing through a brick wall. Crewmen have suffered all kinds of injuries from broken bones to lacerations when they hit the sharp dagger boards that jut out of the foredeck. Early in the race one crewman demolished a steering wheel when he was hurled down the deck.

Some have questioned the wisdom of pushing highly-tuned raceboats close to their limits over long stretches of open ocean where planning for every variable of wind, wave and weather is almost impossible. As Don Jones, the designer of Brunel, lying seventh in the race, put it, “You can make the hull as strong as you like, but God can always make a bigger wave.”

While none of the boats, so far, has been involved in any kind of catastrophic break-up, the reality of this kind of racing struck home again in the last leg when another boat, Movistar, had to be abandoned when it began taking on water through the keel-joint.

Mike Joubert, Movistar’s bowman, described the sailing experience as “incredibly brutal,” both mentally and physically. While all the boats have diet and training regimes it is difficult to prepare crews for the emotional stresses of racing hard 24-hours a day, up to 20 days at a time across the most desolate spaces on the planet.

Imagine changing a foresail on a foredeck awash with foaming waves, spume streaking across the bow, and sky and sea whipped so fiercely that it is difficult to distinguish the waves through which the boat is moving at such speed it feels as if the hull cannot withstand the next pounding crash.

Below deck the experience is not much more comforting in the funereal ink-black, unpainted carbon interior. “White paint would have added 120 kilos to the weight,” explains Touber. Inside this claustrophobic atmosphere is a small grey seat in front of a couple of desk-mounted laptop on-board computers, the directional nerve centre of the boat for navigator Stan Honey. “It can get really warm and stuffy down here and then you’re cold up top. It sends you crazy,” he says.

At sea the crews eat freeze-dried food and lots of it. Rigo de Nijs, the team physiotherapist, trainer and nutritionist, says crew members need 5,800 calories a day in the cold conditions of the southern ocean. Power bars are eaten as supplements. The 17 bars consumed in one day by Simeon Tienpont, sailing on the number two boat, holds the team record.

Before the race and during stopovers, training regimes include a combination of cardio-focused work and muscle-bulking exercises. “We need to work on our legs as much as our arms because it’s important to have core stability,” says Jan Dekker, bowman. “A lot of the work is about pure body strength that we need to move the sails.”

During the sea legs three tons of sail are piled on deck. Every time the boat tacks, that weight has to be shifted over on to the windward side to help the boat balance and there are times on the downwind stretches when it must be shifted forward or aft depending on the point of sail. “That’s very heavy work but it’s a different kind of load to the stress that the navigator and skipper are under. They struggle to sleep at times,” says Dekker.

Mike Sanderson, the skipper, was feeling the effects of strain in the southern ocean so, on the advice of the physio, he took occasional turns on the grinder in order to stimulate the release of endorphins – the body’s natural “happy” stimulants released through exercise.

Crews are given time off for socialising, meeting families and catching up on sleep after the end of every leg. “There are many theories about sleep patterns and we haven’t found any one way to go, other than saying that crew members should try to recoup every hour of sleep lost,” says Rigo de Nijs.

Water on board, desalinated and stripped of its minerals when passed through the filter of the water-maker, must be topped up with mineral and vitamin supplements.

In spite of all the training and attention to nutrition, however, conditions are sometimes so extreme that thinking capacity is reduced, even when the crew maintains a rotation system of four hours on and four off with two new people introduced every two hours to enable a constant mixing of crew.
The yachts can travel so fast that it is possible to hang on to weather systems as they move across the oceans. Does this mean they have grown too fast? Has technology outstripped the human capacity to withstand the extreme physical stresses produced by a combination of boat speed, wind power and the pounding of the sea?

It may be that the race organisers will need to think about introducing tougher safety policies, supported by points penalties, that enforce the wearing of lifejackets, crash hats and possibly other items of body armour, however unpopular this may prove. Enforcement could raise practical issues. Some crew members worry about the way that safety equipment can hinder some deck manoeuvres.

As Touber points out, ocean racing is not risk free and deaths have occurred in the past, just as they do in many other sports such as motor racing, rock climbing and eventing with horses. His conviction, along with other team members, that the death of Horrevoets was an “unfortunate accident that could have happened at any time,” may be disputed by some, but most of those who go down to the sea in boats know of its dangers and the risks that they take. It’s all part of living on the edge.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved