Racing off the edge

The remaining 4-boats of the 6 original VOR Open-70′s that started leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race continue through the Roaring-40′s ice gates and race deeper into the Furious-50′s on their way to round Cape Horn for Brazil.

They’re racing through an area of the Southern Ocean that has no transcontinental over-flights, and is void of any shipping traffic. There is only the numbing cold and violently windswept wetness of the most isolated place on the planet populated only by the solitary Albatross and teams of international sailors seeking their own personal grails. They have a single link, a golden thread of technology. Inmarsat provides weather, scant news from home and a connection to their shore team while carrying their scheduled position reports and almost real-time media back for us ashore to follow. A single link for all communications. Clear, digitally pure and unambiguous communications.

The VOR-70′s are a unique breed; 70′ in length weighing-in at 14-tons, carrying 7.4-ton articulating keels. They are optimized for high-speed, long-distance racing in a series of globe-spanning sprints. Crafted of carbon-fiber with 31.5 meter spars of high-modulus carbon carrying sail plans of exotic colors on rigs of Spectra, the boats are capable of maintaining 30-knots, . . . Effortlessly. But in the Southern Ocean they’re being throttled back in hopes of surviving the punishment of 40′ waves.

VOR-70 Telefonica

The cold winds from Antarctica howl at 60-knots and push waves the size of condo-blocks that continue to batter the fleet. Sanya(CH) with damage to their steering gear has retired the leg and returns to Auckland, NZ while Camper(NZ) sails to Chile for structural repairs caused by 8-meter waves. Telefonica(SP) has adopted a slower and less punishing northern route, nursing a damaged bow to Ushuaia for reinforcing in port. Groupama(FR) is now chased by PUMA(US) 30-miles astern and closing. AbuDhabi(AD) trails by another 1400-miles after stopping for repairs to damage sustained in brutal upwind conditions at the start of the leg. In the Southern Ocean, extreme boat speeds are possible, but the teams have to throttle-back, preserving the gear and rig from thrashing itself into fragments of catastrophic carbon-fiber failure. At 26-kts, falling from a 30′ wave will shake your teeth loose. The boats are highly stressed, designed and built to extract forward motion with high efficiency with little flexibility to absorb and lose energy. Slick, tight and fast.

So too for the teams of 11 sailors manning each of the boats, as they struggle to survive the extreme conditions of numbing temperatures and physical exhaustion from the demands of keeping these winged monsters flying. Conditions are constantly wet, very often as dangerous below as above decks, with a grueling intensity requiring constant attention. . . . Lucky not to have seen more than the half-a-dozen injuries sustained so far on this leg of the race. These are not your casual yachtsman, many are past Olympic medalists, most hold class or divisional championships, and their CV’s are globe-spanning, most with multiple circlings. They are technical athletes, with heavy physical conditioning  to complement their deep experience levels and cross-training in all facets of keeping these carbon machines at top performance. Racing a VOR-70 involves constant attention to maximizing lift and minimizing the drag with minute adjustments; a quarter spoke on the wheel and the main needs an ease or a trim, constantly.

These sailors understand the inherent risks, but they also do it for the joy of fast. The Volvo Ocean Race is the ultimate in offshore racing. Wet, fast freedom, a 360º horizon of sky and ocean, and a trip around the world. Their competitive levels are high, and they’re each capable of understanding the strategy and how the tactics play with changes in the meteorology or localized patterns of cloud formation and squall chasing. These guys are flat good, at the top of their game. No questions, No doubts.

AbuDhabi in the Southern Ocean

The parallels to today’s business environment are a metaphor for the extreme conditions of constant stress and relentless competition. Competition from the other boats is a variable factor, but you have “that vision-thing” the absolute knowledge that you’ve prepared so thoroughly that the challenges ahead hold few surprises. Nick Hayes examined record-breaking ocean racing performance in terms of Project Management, Design/Build, Team and Preparation; the four minimum criteria for success. But I’ve noticed a new wrinkle being added as the technology and equipment have developed to suit extreme conditions, extreme speeds and high latitudes.

During sail-changes, shortening sail as the wind across the deck increases, and lifting more sail up into the rig as wind-speed decrease is a full-on effort, involving the entire crew. In the Souther Ocean, with higher boat-speeds, huge waves washing the decks and much lower temperatures involved, the ability to merely communicate is at a premium.  To that end, one team’s approach during sail changes involves a new rule on the dry-suits that all crew wear. “No Hoodies, No Gloves” Brutal conditions call for brutal rules. But having your ears open radically affects your ability to hear deck-calls from 60′ away at the wheel, or poised at the pointy-end clearing a halyard, or hanking a new jib onto a clean tack-shackle. Any snags are clearly understood by all involved. The next action is anticipated, and wave-warnings are cleanly heard by those most at risk. And this is among a crew where each member knows to the centimeter and the ft/lb what actions at what forces are involved.

How well does an organization understand the strategy, or a change in tactics or the suggestions that contribute to closer teamwork, better coordination and effective execution? You may under appreciate the risks involved, but your team is focused on their own initiatives, both independent and interdependent. And there are enough variables in life and business without communication contributing to the confusion. Yeah, sailing involves its own unique language, as the activities are both specific and critical, but there is no room for ambiguity, none whatsoever.

So it is in business, there’s no room for ambiguity, as we all know the goal. Just keep me aware of the changes that I need to be able to respond to. And listen to me well, . . . We all depend on hearing each other.

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One Response to Racing off the edge

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