North At­lantic Rip­pers

Sailing World - - Starting Line - —Justin Fer­ris, as told to Dave Reed

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.

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