Interview with Volvo Ocean Race Team Tyco navigator

Ocean Navigator Online: How does the day-to-day navigating differ on this leg than other legs? What patterns do you look for to grab a few days of clean sailing?

Steve Hayles: In simple terms, they’re all similar in terms of the data we have to get on the boat, we still look at the weather on a day-to-day basis, and any situation is looked at individually, so it’s not massively different. With this leg, the pressure’s off me a little bit, as the skipper, and the watch leaders make the decisions about when we push the boat and when we don’t. There are a lot of nerve-wracking aspects, like anytime we’re near ice. For the navigators it’s really hard because you have to have the nav station manned by somebody at all times. You need to have someone with an eye on the radar. Quite often there are periods where you don’t need to be in [the nav station] necessarily, but we need to be there a lot of the time, and it adds up to not a lot of sleep.

As far as this leg goes, what makes it interesting and a little bit different is that it goes through various parts of the world; we leave here and have to negotiate a big high-pressure system, and then we’re going to get down into very strong westerlies. We sail the majority of the way to Cape Horn hopefully in good, fast downwind conditions. It’s cold and wet; ice is an issue, but it’s good fast sailing. Then we go from the freezing cold 0° sea temperature and then as we go up the South American coast we get into a completely different weather picture again. The second half of the leg, after we round Cape Horn, is almost a completely separate leg, and it’s quite a long one — about 2000 miles or so. What’s different about this leg from the last one is that it takes you through a lot of different weather patterns. Unlike the last leg from Sydney to Auckland, this one is a very long leg, and it takes you through an awful lot of different weather patterns.

It’s a leg of extremes. We go through cold temperatures and ice, and then the next minute we’re sailing up through really hot, humid, sticky, horrible conditions as we’re going up the coast of Brazil. Historically it’s always been the leg that’s caused the most damage amongst the fleet. We’ve all got terrible experiences on the beat north of the boats breaking up. It’s a tough leg on the boat, more so than any of the other legs.

Ocean Navigator Online: How is this ocean either better or worse for you in your role?

Steve Hayles: It’s a lot worse in that the weather forecasting and the way that the computer models, which we rely on heavily, work. The accuracy of the forecasting that you get is very degraded, compared to what we’re used to in some other legs and the reason for that is there’s very few boats that go down here. There’s very few aircraft that fly over it. So the weather models have very little information in them, which means that the weather information tends not to be substantive. We have to rely a lot more on our pre-race planning and a bit more on our gut feeling about the conditions. Other things like satellite imagery become quite important because we need to be able to look down on these low-pressure systems. One of the things we’re always trying to watch out for is something called a secondary low, which is a low pressure that hangs off a big main system, and if we get caught on the wrong side of that we could easily find ourselves going upwind in lots of wind, which is a) uncomfortable and dangerous, and b) you’re making huge losses if other people are still going downwind. The fact that the weather data is a bit wooly is probably what makes my life that much harder, combined with the added pressures of having to make sure we’re on constant lookout for ice. We’re slightly dogged by very unpredictable weather on the bit going to Cape Horn, and the bit going up the Brazilian coast. The fact that the winds blow quite a lot out of the west and we sail in the lee of a huge range of mountains, the Andes, they tend to produce very unpredictable conditions, so there’s a lot more dealing with what we’ve got then and there rather than so much reliance on the computer models on this leg.

Ocean Navigator Online: How much do you rely on your equipment and software as opposed to sailors’ instincts?

Steve Hayles: We have a lot of problems because the boats are going a long way south. Things like Internet access get very difficult. But there’s more and more reliance on pre-race planning, where we look statistically at what latitude is a good latitude to sail on and how far south should we go based on previous experience. We have to rely quite heavily on those things because historical information is a bit sparse.

There is a bit more instinct going on with the leg; it’s just your own gut feelings based on your experience. I’ve done the leg twice before and it’s knowing when to push and when to ease off a bit. You’re right on the edge a lot of the time, and you need to know whether that’s the time to really push or not. The weather becomes an important part of that. I need to give the guys plenty of warning; I need to sit there and watch all the fronts that come through, and I can see certain things in those blips in the radar. We have some pretty tense nights if it’s already very windy and you’re right on the edge. It’s hard on all of us. It only takes one big squall to come through that could mean your leg over. You could break an important piece of equipment. If you really broach the boat badly, there’s always a chance of breaking kit. It’s quite tense on all of us and sometimes you have to wing it. That’s when you’re software goes out the window. It just doesn’t help you when you’re looking at the sky and looking at squalls coming through and trying to out-guess the weather really.

The nights are really hard for the guys; it’s dark; there will be a moon, but that changes; it’s gray and wet and cold the whole time, and you have to keep the lights off so the guys can see above deck. It’s tense onboard, we all know it’s serious and there’s a serious environment onboard. At 57° south, Cape Horn is the southern-most point of land on the globe other than Antarctica, and down there you have to watch for icebergs. There’s a massive iceberg that sits at 60° south moving with the current, which we can see on our radar, but for the most part they don’t show up.

Ocean Navigator Online: What kind of software do you use?

Steve Hayles: For the first 72 hours, we use a fine scale, meter scale meteorological model with grid resolutions from three kilometers out to 36 kilometers. This is very fine scale to what the other boats are using; they have the same kind of model output but it’s only every 191 kilometers. We use a company called Earth Tech Inc. in the states, which produces a very fine-scale modeling forecast for the first 72 hours of the race. Instead of having a data point every 191 kilometers over the sea, we have the same data at 36 kilometers, so when we leave we have this very fine-scale resolution. The model is run at Earth Tech Inc. in the states, because there’s no way I can run the model on my laptop. It’s such a huge model it needs big Unix machine, and it needs to have many hours to run on and the data is ready for us before we leave. I get the physical plots, I have the fine-scale GRIB file and the currents to put into my routing package.

The routing package determines the best way to sail. It’s a very important tool for us because the routing package is actually telling us where to sail given the current meteorological conditions; it makes it a lot more objective. It finds the best wind, based on the data and the GRIB file. It takes into account the boat, the sails, the currents and the fine-scale meteorological data. It plans the route with the least amount of tacks and the best position for the boat to follow. We use it for 72 hours, but the models don’t run too much further into the future without becoming wobbly to reality. After that, we rely on the GRIB files sent out every 24 hours with data points every 191 kilometers that everyone else accesses.

By Ocean Navigator