The master

Velux 5 Oceans leader Bernard Stamm talks about leg two and how to get around the world fast in an Open 60

Tuesday March 6th 2007, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected
Following the retirement of Alex Thomson and Mike Golding on leg one left Swiss ocean racer Bernard Stamm clear favourite for winning the second leg of the Velux 5 Oceans (barring disasters), the rest of the competitors either lacking experience or boat speed.

Early on in the giant 15,725 mile long leg from Fremantle, Western Australia to Norfolk, Virginia on the eastern seaboard of the US, Stamm had claimed not to want to get too far ahead of the opposition, to remain in the same weather pattern, etc. Yet, by the time he was south of New Zealand he was already leading by around 330 miles. Entering the Pacific he broke clear of second placed Kojiro Shiraishi on Spirit of Yukoh when he was able to skirt south of a high pressure system that would dog progress for the Japanese skipper for the following two weeks. By the time he passed the second ice waypoint gate in the Pacific he was more than 1,000 miles ahead and stiff conditions en route to Cape Horn allowed him to extend his lead to 1,800 miles by the time he passed back into the Atlantic. Despite sailing in the lighter winds of the South Atlantic while his competitors were still in the Southern Ocean, Stamm managed to extend to 1,939 miles by the time he reached the Equator and when he finished in the early hours of Sunday morning was almost 2,800 miles ahead.

Part of this is as much down to Koji losing miles on Stamm as it is the Swiss skipper making them on his Japanese rival. But there is no denying Stamm is a grand master in this sport of solo transoceanic sailing.

Solo offshore racing is an anathema to most racing sailors due to the fact that because there is only one person is on board who must occasionally eat, drink, sleep, navigate or fix things, they are not sailed to 100%. Races such as the Velux 5 Oceans, Vendee Globe and Barcelona World Race are also monstrously long and preserving kit is also high on the agenda - sailing at 80% and not breaking gear is faster than sailing at 90% and having to waste valuable down time through breakage or blowing up sails that might hamper progress in the future. It is the knowledge of his boat, when to take risks by pushing hard and when not to, where Stamm is a master, as with all of the other successful sailors in this sport. Success in this type of racing is down to realising your boat has more than one gear and knowing when to change down. "When I push hard I go higher in the range of the sails and take more risks of breaking materials. I try to keep the speed for longer," Stamm says.

In terms of risking gear failure, sailing in heavy seas particularly upwind is obviously a time to throttle back, whereas broad reaching you can actually reduce loads by sailing fast as it lowers the apparent wind speed.

But this changing of gears is also vital for tactical reasons Stamm says. Those who followed his routing on this leg may have noticed what a thing of beauty it was. Some of this was luck, but much of it was skill. While other competitors in the Velux 5 Oceans found themselves in conditions unfavourable for an Open 60 - upwind or in no wind - and with no apparent way out, Stamm always appeared to have some option to get out of jail and part of this was getting to weather systems at the right time at the right place, to ensure he experienced the optimum conditions available.

Unique for this leg was that with effectively no competition and no one to cover in the race, Stamm had no strategic issues to worry him and says he was able to dedicate more time to working on his routing and how to make best progress from the available weather. "I pushed the boat only to catch the right weather systems, but after that I always sailed not more slow but more conservative. I had more time to make all the manoeuvres, etc". It became more like the tactics for a record attempt.

He cites the occasions on this leg when he pushed hard to get himself to the best weather situation: "The first day after the departure from Australia and after when I saw the high pressure was building in the middle of the Pacific I had four or five days where I had to push just to go south of the high very quickly. And after this when I was near the Falklands, when I just tried to arrive just before the ridge. The ridge was building and it was very bad because there is no wind there. So I had to push there and after it was just in the Trade Winds it was just reaching, trimming sails to go as fast as possible. It was not conservative, it was only speed - taking in 2cm or easing 2cm or go a few degrees higher - it was all fine tuning."

Obviously part of this process was time spent at the computer working on his routing. All the Open 60s use highly sophisticated software such as Expedition, Deckman or the grandaddy of them all MaxSea, which Stamm uses. For readers not familiar with these programs they are essentially electronic chart plotters, plotting the boat's position and its track over digital charts. The race organisers issue the positions of the boats five times a day in a format that can be quickly pulled into the program which plots the positions of the other boats (as we do with our race reports on

Most important for the competitor is that they have polars for their boat stored within the program. GRIB files, digital weather forecast charts that in essence plot wind speed and direction over a grid of whatever ocean area and over whatever time period hence the skipper choses, are then compared with the boat's polars to calculate an optimum route. While sailing down the great circle is the shortest route from A-B if there is a high pressure off to the right and good wind off to the left, the routing will certainly advise going left. While the skipper will know this in principle this software is excellent for fine tuning. However it comes with a big health warning - the routing it generates is only as good as the polar information and critically the weather information.

On Cheminees Poujoulat Stamm has a conventional set of polars showing the maximum speeds the boat should be going for different points of sail and wind speeds. Within MaxSea there is a function that allows you to key in the 'efficiency' the boat is being sailed at, ie 80 or 85%, tightening up the accuracy of the routing. The same kind of alteration can be made to all GRIB files viewed by the program - typically GRIB files under predict wind strength by 5-15% so this can be whacked up. In fact Stamm says he left his polar efficency at 100% but didn't crank up the GRIB files. "It was working perfect but it is for adjusting things. I think I was more or less 90% of efficiency. It is not easy to go a little bit slower. Either you go fast or very very slow!"

When it comes to helming Stamm says he only really does this when he needs to. Open 60s spend most of their time being steered by the autopilot (hence why this is such a vital piece of kit). Because of this Open 60s are designed and their rigs set up to have a fairly neutral helm and Stamm says that before letting the pilot take over he always ensures the trim is correct so that the autopilot will be able to manage. As he puts it: "You can make mistakes if you pass on a hard boat to the pilot."

Obviously the pilot is in charge when conditions allow. Upwind or downwind or in a shifty breeze Stamm says he will steer more and on this leg he had additional issues that saw him perched at the helm for longer. While they catered for 55 days of food on this leg, which eventually only took 49, Stamm says they were optimistic about the amount of diesel they put on board. "In the south I ran the two computers and the radar all the time and I think it was too much."

He ran the radar in the Southern Ocean partly as an early warning system in the event of any iceberg encounters but radar also shows up rainfall and on occasion served as his eyes ahead at night. "When it is very bad weather like before the front in the south, you go very fast and you see nothing, so sometime it is a little bit scary - it is like driving you car at night without headlights."

As result Stamm began to conserve energy in the Southern Ocean and into the North Atlantic, when the situation was getting more critical, was helming for four or five hours a day on average.

Otherwise on this leg Stamm says he didn't run out of food - he actually had too much of it. Despite this he still reckons he lost about 2-3kg weight. He ate exclusively freeze dried food.

The worst weather was during the Southern Ocean when he came into contact with three depressions, each bringing a similar strength of wind. Howevere the last one was on the approach to Cape Horn and the sea was considerably worst due to the seabed shelving up so steeply here. "The sea was much worse than in the open sea. There were bad waves. It was normal Cape Horn! So I had to slow down because the sea was much shorter and higher."

In the South Atlantic he tackled the high pressure system masterfully, heading towards its centre and on until such time as the northeasterly trades veered east, and continuing until he could to round Recife (in comparison both Koji and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston stayed too far west and got stuck south of Rio trying to get away from the Brazilian coastline).

The Doldrums passage was relatively easy as compared to the outbound passage it was further west where the Doldrums are less active. "I got slowed a little bit, not very much," says Stamm of his passage through this area this time. "It was very difficult because there was a lot of squalls, strong squalls and a load of shifting wind, but there was wind and that was better than no wind. I slowed just for three or four hours. The speed was about three or four knots, but I never stopped." Then he was into the trade winds and apart from slightly more complex weather towards the finish where he had to cross a trough, he made excellent progress towards the finish.

In terms of gear failure Stamm broke the top car on his mainsail just over half way across the Pacific in light conditions when the sail was flogging. While Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Graham Dalton had similar problems and had to pull in to make repairs costing them 48 hours each, Stamm did not. "I didn’t have any spares. I just managed with another car. The lowest car on the mainsail I put it on top and after I rolled the sail with ropes." There were occasions however he admits that to lower the main he had to crank it down.

Other than that the only time he was down speed was when he ran into a giant bundle of thick rope (around 1 cubic metre in size he reckons) from a fishing net, as he was south of New Zealand. "I had to stop and go backwards and it was very hard to get away from it. And it was bad weather!"

He only went up the mast on one occasion right at the end of the leg to fix broken cabling for his wind instruments and to replace a halyard.

Leg three of the Velux 5 Oceans, the final transatlantic sprint back to Bilbao in northern Spain is due to start on 15 April. We know who our money will be on.

More photos on page two...

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