Volvo Ocean Race: Will Oxley on the Race so far – Part 1
The stopover in Sanya at the end of Leg 3 was a chance for Team Alvimedica navigator, Will Oxley to reflect on the leg just sailed, and the Volvo Ocean Race so far.
Leg 3 took the now six-boat Volvo Ocean Race fleet from Abu Dhabi, out of the Persian Gulf, through the Gulf of Oman, out into the Arabian Sea, around the bottom of India, across the Bay of Bengal, through the Straits of Malacca, into the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea and to the finish in Sanya, China.
The course was riddled with Exclusion Zones designed by organisers to keep the fleet safe as they sailed through a very troubled part of the world, punctuated by very zealous on-the-water security forces.
I was pleased to get out of the Persian Gulf with some breeze. It was very painful getting down the Straits of Oman, with the Exclusion Zone, along the coasts of Iran and Pakistan.
When you get into the Gulf of Oman, and there is no wind, you head for the coast. But the race boats aren’t allowed in there because of the Exclusion Zones. It was frustrating with an element of randomness as we were doing short gybing along the edge of the Exclusion Zone.
Oxley says the Exclusion Zones are difficult to work with, and the margins are very fine. ‘We are going to within 100 metres of the Exclusion Zone. You need to triple check and then check again to make sure you know where you are. The expectation is that if we infringed and stepped over a virtual sideline, that we would get a points penalty.
Making the calls on boat routing was not helped by the discovery, four days into the leg, that one of the weather feeds had been changed significantly and a newer version was still in test mode – although it was running live, valid data as far as the competitors were concerned.
The American model (GFS) was a completely new model – with which we had no history or experience as to its accuracy. That means we have less confidence in it because we are not sure how it is going to behave.
Oxley notes that at one point crossing the Bay of Bengal, when the fleet was parked up, the surface weather charts, which Team Alvimedica use as well as the two weather feeds, had no difference in pressure gradient for 1000nm.
Tactics are difficult on a Leg, and indeed a Race, which has been notable for light winds. The conservative option is to stay with the group and cover. But middle courses often get middle places. Or a boat can split away and make a move that will secure a Leg win.
For Team Alvimedica, who believe that some competitors such as Abu Dhabi, ‘do have a do have a boat speed edge on us at the moment. Anytime we are in front we can slow them down, which is a good thing.
Being out of the top three overall means there were a number of occasions when Alvimedica was the first to gybe or tack so they would not be covered by the top three.
Sometimes the other guys were so focused on each other we could dictate,’ Oxley says. ‘A number of times we were able to dictate, we made a good jump on Mapfre, Abu Dhabi and Brunel, who were more focused on each other.
In the previous edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, when Oxley was navigator aboard Camper sailed by Emirates Team New Zealand, their low point of the race was probably the passage through the Straits of Malacca. This was the point where they effectively lost the Leg, and put a lot of pressure on the team for the remainder of the race.
We didn’t have a good Straits of Malacca on Camper last time, Oxley reflects. A large part of that was random, but of course that is not how it was perceived by the onshore navigation department!
So we did a lot of research on it this time. This included the study of 20 scientific papers on the land-sea interaction in that Strait, plus other detailed research from Oxley’s friends and colleagues who sail there more regularly.
Oxley, a marine biologist by profession, has invaluable onshore, pre-race navigational assistance from Anderson Reggio.
The meteorological models have improved this time – I felt much better prepared having been there before. This Leg 3, I feel that we sailed that part of the race very confidently. Our goal was to come out of the Malacca Straits in clear contact with our competition. We achieved that, which was pleasing, because it is one of those places where you can lose an awful lot.
The danger this time was not from thunderclouds and squalls, but from swapping sides. Team SCA followed the routing and made some good gains, but lost when they swapped sides of the Strait. We opted for the Malaysian side, Oxley explains.
It is a highly complicated place, and there is a large element of luck, but there is a percentage game to play, and hopefully we did a good job of that.
Oxley recalls that at one point in the Strait a difference of 300 metres between the boats was enough for one to pick up the sea breeze and the others not.
After Singapore, the model worked properly. There is a persistent right-hand geographic shift, which is well documented, as we neared the Vietnamese coast.
At the time, we felt that would be marginal if Brunel could cross us if they tacked, and the same with Mapfre. Abu Dhabi went before us, but as soon as we had a sniff of the new breeze, we tacked, and we were able to lead Brunel and Mapfre. That gave us a 5-7nm on them which was significant in terms of holding them off.
Small margins seem to be critical in this edition of the race, with the one-design boats, which seem to offer less in the way of passing lanes than the previous open designs, which always seemed to have a crucial speed edge one way or the other, allowing a faster competitor to claw back a rival.
Abu Dhabi skipper, Ian Walker, a veteran of now three Volvo Ocean Races and a double Olympic Silver medalist, described the night of sailing up the Vietnam coast as the most intense night of sailing that he had experienced in a Volvo Ocean Race.
Oxley concurs. It was quite ridiculous. There were literally a thousand lights, and a lot of boats which don’t have lights. The boats were running long-set nets, set at different angles, and then squid fishing using several coracles – each about six feet in diameter and made of thatch.
These little guys were just sitting on them like being on a lily-pad. They don’t have a light, sometimes just a torch or lantern. We could only see them if they turned their lights on or could pick them up through the night-scope.
‘There are also lots of wrecks – presumably because of the war. And the area is not well charted. On one part of the coast, the Americans are involved. On another part, the USSR is listed as the hydrographer. It clearly states that the charts are in error, and the whole area is very marginal, from a safe navigation perspective.
Oxley employed previous knowledge to get though the hazards. ‘I had the boat tracks from last time, so we knew where we could get though from before. I made sure I knew the state of the tide. Also on the electronic charts I mark every obstacle I can see so that it doesn’t matter at what resolution we are navigating – we can see the obstacles.
You have a lot on your plate – and that went on all night.
Part 2 of this interview will feature in Sail-World on Saturday, including Will Oxley’s view on why Dongfeng is the race leader.