North Atlantic Rippers
The 24-hour speed record is a coveted jewel in the Volvo Ocean Race crown. When the opportunity presents itself, the sailors say, go for it. One such occasion came halfway through Leg 9 of the recent edition of the race, and it was the two women and seven men of Akzonobel who would break the record once and then do so again the following day, pegging the record at 602.51 nautical miles. For helmsman Justin Ferris, of New Zealand, a 42-year-old four-time veteran of the race, it was a magic carpet ride into the race’s history books. Here’s his account.
Normally in the Northern Atlantic you’ll get an opportunity to get a good 24-hour run. Plus, the wind shift matched the great circle route almost perfectly, allowing us to sail maximum mileage. The sea state was a big factor though. We would call it almost flat, way flatter than anything we’d experienced in the Southern Ocean legs. It was organized most of the time, allowing for very fast sailing.
With the wind, the sea state and the current all aligned with the routing, it presented us with two magical days of yachting. We didn’t intend to split earlier in the leg with Mapfre and Dongfeng like we did. It was forced by having more pressure and shifts to the south, and we kept extending. The farther we went that way and the longer it lasted, the stronger our position became. Once into the fresh conditions, we were able to sail another 10 degrees wider than them for the first 24-hour run. Then, the currents lined up perfectly. That was a bit of good fortune, but the router placed us in favorable current and the Gulf Stream was ripping. We had periods where we never dipped below 27 knots. The boat was locked in and going, just awesome.
It was one stint of fast sailing, divided into two different stages. We’d planned for it, and the boat was set up well because we’d taken the previous afternoon to organize our internal stack, getting it as far aft as we could. We made sure the sails were flaked as small as we could get them and stacked on deck as far aft as we could put them.
Being able to maximize the aft stack and keep the bow up and as much water off the deck as we can allows us to sail faster. It also helps with the stability because we’re gaining righting moment when we can keep that back corner in the water. This applies to the internal gear stack as well. We’re limited by how far aft we can get it — as far back as the aft bulkhead. That requires knowing what’s the heaviest and making sure it’s in the aftmost outboard corner: the food, tool boxes, emergency gear, life jackets, pumps. We have a list of weights for each bag, and we know which ones are heaviest so we make sure each one goes in the right place.
When we were finally able to unleash it, the boat was locked in and safe. No one ever got knocked off the wheel, and we were able to sail the boat at 100 percent of its polars the entire run. We never once had to put the bow down to slow the boat; it was just constant speed. We were limited to the angle we could sail, however. It was 120 true- wind angle, and that was it. There was one short period where it did get fresh and we had to sail a bit wider, but the boat was essentially locked in at 120, which was a perfect angle for the waves and the three headsails we had up: the J-zero, which is the nonoverlapping code zero, and two staysails.
Depending on how fresh it was at the time, we would just furl the staysails as we needed to. We never took down any sails. We could remove a little bit of sail area, and when we needed it back, it was a two- minute job to unfurl it and be off again. Conditions were so stable we could keep the boat charging, with one reef in the main the whole time. Driving at such a pace wasn’t easy though. Standing at the wheel for two hours was punishing, and it was a struggle to keep water from my eyes and hang on, getting pounded with body shots from the waves crashing across the deck. But it wasn’t the Southern Ocean either, no massive crashes at the bottom of waves. I was much warmer too. It only got down to 12 degrees at one point, which is way more pleasant than dealing with the snow flurries and ice of the Southern Ocean.
After a two-hour stint at the wheel, you’re pretty shattered. That’s two hours of hanging on, but it’s the best feeling coming to the end of your shift knowing you’ve had a good turn in the fun room and you’ve gone fast. Only then could I actually sleep properly.
Chris Nicholson, Luke Malloy, Nicolai Sehested and I were the four drivers during this run. I’m sure everyone wanted to jump in to have a little piece of the record, but we’re pretty selfish when we’re having this much fun. Still, everyone knows their abilities, and when the conditions are right, we need the right guys driving. When it’s fast and we need to be accurate, we have to limit it down to the people who are safe.
What was different from other legs was we didn’t have the massive speed crashes from the waves stopping us. There was no violent motion to the boat; we could go below and move about, stand up, use the toilet. It was far more manageable than other conditions we’d experienced. The boat is nice to drive in these conditions. With so many small sails up forward, the boat is unloaded.
Crashing and launching off of waves there would be the occasional loud bang, but these boats are so solid compared to the Volvo 70s, where we had to be aware about how we landed on waves and make sure we didn’t break the boat. There was never any concern. It’s way more relaxed, but when the same sails are up for 24 hours, we do start thinking about chafe. How good is the tack line? How’s the lock strop? What’s the sheet like running through the outrigger? We were conscious of potential problems but hopeful nothing would happen. We couldn’t stop and check. We just pushed through, fingers crossed it all held together, and when we hit the high- pressure ridge, it was a relief to relax and know the fast sailing was done and no one could beat our record. That’s locked in and safe until the next big blow.