Friday, 28 February 2014

Clipper's decision to stop the race highlights perils of one design racing

The debate over One-Design racing has been rumbling for years but the suspension of sailing in the latest leg of the Clipper Race has brought it back under the spotlight.

Clipper Ventures were one of the pioneers of using identical boats in their round the world fleets.

While other races favoured boats designed to a particular rule as in the Vendee Globe’s IMOCA 60, or boats rated under a handicap system according to their size as in the early Whitbread Races, Clipper blazed a new trail with a fleet of matching boats which placed the focus on crew performance rather than on technology.

It was the best solution for their business model which was based around giving risk-reduced opportunities to amateurs as opposed to challenging professionals as in the Volvo Ocean Race, which when it starts in October will be One-Design for the first time ever though, unlike Clipper, all boats will be owned by teams rather than the race.

For that reason, halting racing due to equipment failure in the Volvo is unlikely but for Clipper, this is a recurring consideration. In the 2005-06 event the race was suspended for seven weeks – coincidentally in this same leg to China – after several boats started to have issues with their keels.

Skippers reported excessive keel movement so all the boats were quickly diverted to Subic Bay in the Philippines where the the faulty parts were replaced and strengthened.

The loss of a keel is the most dangerous of all gear failures since a boat can upturn in seconds with disastrous consequences as Tony Bullimore famously discovered in the 1996 Vendee Globe, when the Briton has had to be rescued, so safety has to be at the forefront of all Clipper’s equipment selections, says Race Director Justin Taylor.

“When one forestay went on Jamaica, we didn’t suspend racing because we thought it was a one-off then two more went in quick succession and it became apparent that it could be a fleet-wide problem,” he said.

“Safety underpins everything we do at Clipper so it was an easy decision to make the decision to suspend racing and take the fleet to Hong Kong to make repairs.

“We can’t cut costs when we are making our equipment choices. When safety is involved, we do not care about costs. We will spend whatever we need to put a problem right.

“Everything on our boats are items you can buy off the shelf because we need to have boats that we can repair ourselves anywhere without specialist help.

“These forestays are a case in point – the bottlescrews that have gone can be bought anywhere. They have failed and we will get to the bottom as to why in due course but we have a solution to correct that which has been signed off by surveyors and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) so we are perfectly happy with that.

“If we hadn’t designed the yachts so that all parts were interchangeable then this would not be possible. By the end of the weekend, we will have 12 boats re-rigged and sailing again. Who else in the world can turn round 12 racing boats and get them racing again in such short order.”

“The logistical problems of getting all 12 boats in one place and getting the right parts and the right personnel out to repair them is probably our biggest nightmare in all of this but it has all been factored in.”

Race officials at the Volvo Ocean Race are watching closely, keen to circumvent costly problems if possible. Trials on some of their brand new identical Volvo 65s have now stretched to 10,000 nms which should minimise problems on the race track, said Volvo race director Jack Lloyd.

“We fully expect to have issues with bits and pieces on our boats,” he said. “We are very new into our programme but so is Clipper because these Clipper 70s are brand new boats. They had a few problems at the start and were short of testing time and they have sailed in some really atrocious conditions.

“People are paying to have the experience in the Clipper whereas we designed a different product for professional sailors but I can’t imagine a situation where we would stop racing and get all the boats in to fix them because in the Volvo, getting to the end of a leg is half the challenge.

“If we had three forestay problems, we would inspect the whole fleet because we would want to know if it was down to the way the boat was being sailed or down to the equipment.”

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Extreme Sailing Series' Smiling Assassins: Franck Cammas and Ben Ainslie

Over the years, I have partaken happily of a few Singapore Slings yet the one the organisers laid on as a prologue to 2014 Extreme Sailing Series was deeply intoxicating, blowing us away then dragging us back craving more.

What a brilliant curtain raiser to a year-long sporting event. Big names, close action and some cracking (literally) drama all combined to create a bit of a blockbuster.... and all without any casualties. Hoorah.

But is this as good as it's going to get? Will the rest of the year be a let-down or could the beaming smiles on show at the skippers press conference turn sour over the course of the next few months to keep interest levels in Extreme sailing high. Let’s hope so!

Steely eyes...winsome smile

It was a stroke of genius to put Singapore in as an opener. A bunch of rusty crews, some of whom had never set foot in an Extreme 40 before, going out on a tiny urban course better suited to row boats with a weird wind and gusts violent enough to blow dogs off chains. 

It had all the makings of a demolition derby…..and boy, did it deliver! One near capsize, two itsy-bitsy crashes then finally, the mother of all pile ups, where Aberdeen Singapore was slung by a violent gust across the deck of Groupama. Never before had we seen a catastrophic hoist like it on a race track. Spectacular.

Being rammed up the backside was Franck Cammas who was making a comeback in the Extremes after coming fourth in 2009 and fifth in 2010 which by his standards is rubbish.

He emerged from the rubble with a big smile but then Cammas is a master of the dazzling smile. During the Volvo Ocean Race, the one he won in 2012 to add to his burgeoning pile of top notch booty, we saw that broad French grin a lot in the latter stages and learned quite a bit about what lies behind it. 

Iron mostly, with a bit of steel and grit. Oh and a good set of knuckles and some big balls though he is famously prone to a bit of deafness. His way is the best way and god help anyone who stands in his way.

He reminds me a bit of……..Sir Ben Ainslie (JP Morgan BAR). In fact he reminds me a lot of Sir Ben Ainslie. 

Winsome smile...steely eyes
The two have been  formed from the same high quality ectoplasm. Both of them are genuine legends who have dedicated their lives to winning…..and both have a pathological hatred of losing so go to some lengths to find ways of winning.

Both appear to be given to ready smiles when the cameras are rolling yet the sunny muscles only flex around the mouth and rarely reach the eyes, which are apertures to their extraordinary obsessions.

Neither appear on too many Christmas card lists among fellow sailors or race officials. Ainslie for sure has a good grasp of venting his frustrations using 'Expletives' therapy. Cammas is a trained concert pianist and possibly when there is an instrument to hand, runs through all the Chopin Etudes to ease his pain.

Ainslie: bone-crushing eye-popping blood pumping need to win

All the Extreme skippers are competitive yet Cammas and Ainslie take it to a different level, sharing a bone-crushing eye-popping blood pumping need to win. This, I feel sure, will keep us more and more entertained as the competition unravels.

Cammas: bone-crushing eye-popping blood pumping need to win

Morgan Larson (Alinghi) and Leigh McMillan (The Wave Muscat), both great Extreme 40 sailors and both known quantities will continue their simmering feud from 2013 sticking rigidly to a tried and tested formula of no risk sailing. That too should prove absorbing especially if McMillan sniffs a chance of winning his third consecutive championship title.

Paul Campbell-James (Gazprom Team Russia) and Rob Greenhalgh (Oman Air) are breathtakingly talented and both know how to win having been crowned champions in previous series.
Yet things have moved on beyond recognition since they last competed so only time will tell whether they can once again find a winning groove. First signs weren’t great but first signs mean diddly-squat in this long drawn out multi layered roller coaster contest.

And of course there is Dean Barker (Emirates Team New Zealand) who is under enormous pressure to prove he is no choker and can lead the Kiwis to glorious victory. Some believe his position as helm of Team Emirates New Zealand is at risk so he will need to pull out all the stops to silence his critics. If he is unable, you might not have to wait long before they make some epoch-making changes.

We’ll come onto the others in another blog but that’s quite enough for now. There is some massive talent on show in 2014….just touching on some of the tantalising rivalries has left me craving more………thank god we only have three weeks to wait before the mayhem and madness in Muscat kicks off.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Alinghi win Extreme Sailing Series Singapore but has Ben Ainslie started to roll?

A roller-coaster day finished on a high note for Sir Ben Ainslie and his Extreme 40 crew on JP Morgan BAR after a string of four podium places including two wins, suggested they were getting the hang of things in their first season of the Extreme Sailing Series.

How far can JP Morgan BAR go in their first Extreme season??

The team were reportedly at a low ebb on Saturday night, frustrated by their poor performances in the tricky conditions in Singapore where the sky scrapers surrounding the race course at Marina Bay were causing massive vagaries in the wind speed and direction.

But they knew what they were doing wrong, they said, and were determined to turn things round which following a slow start on Sunday, is what they did, pulling off two wins, a second and third place in the final four races to leave them in a creditable sixth place overall after their first four days of Extreme 40 racing.

Ainslie admitted on Saturday that his team had been off the pace.

“We didn’t really sail very well and struggled to call the wind right. Every part of the course was a bit of a struggle for us but we still learnt throughout the day so while the results weren’t what we wanted we still worked out a few things to improve on our performance longer term.”

The mighty Alinghi!!

All 12 boats returned to the race course for the last day’s racing including Groupama and Aberdeen Singapore, the two boats that had become enmeshed in a dramatic crash on Saturday. Both vessels had been in the boat shed all night being repaired by their shore crews.

Following an action packed contest, it was the experienced Extreme campaigners who have mastered the challenge for consistency who hogged the leading positions with Morgan Larson’s Alinghi emerging as resounding winners and two times Extreme champion Leigh McMillan coming in second despite finishing the first day languishing back in eighth place overall on the leaderboard.

Welcome back Groupama

Dean Barker failed to silence critics over his future as New Zealand’s America’s Cup skipper after a controversial port-starboard incident in the final race in Singapore which dropped Emirates Team New Zealand out of contention for the runners up prize and third place too.

The Kiwi team finished two points behind Ainslie in 7th place which can have done nothing to ease the pain of their humiliating America’s Cup defeat five months ago at the hands of Ainslie’s Oracle USA.

 “It’s the first time we have raced together in five months, and our first time back on the circuit since 2011, and for sure we wanted to get a podium here, but couldn’t get away with it,” he said afterwards.

“We’re still rusty and have to focus our thoughts, but we’ll get there.”
Watch out for The Wave Muscat. They're rollin....!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Spectacular pile up raises safety questions at Extreme Sailing Series in Singapore

A spectacular pile-up between two boats at the Extreme Sailing Series in Singapore has prompted crews to seek reassurances from organisers that conditions in Marina Bay are safe for racing.

The crash between the two Extreme 40 catamarans took place towards the end of the day as a heavy gust lifted Aberdeen’s hull out of the water and brought it crashing down on the French boat Groupama, dismasting it and sending three crew overboard.
What a mess!! Great pictures from Mark Lloyd 

Crews were wearing helmets and no one was injured while safety boats and divers, part of the organiser’s elaborate safety protocol, were quickly on the scene to cut away rigging and make the boats safe.

This accident will rank as the worst in the history of Extreme 40 racing but since it started eight years ago, the appeal of the circuit has been rooted in the thrills and spills of high performance boats racing at full pelt in small confined spaces. Capsizes and near misses are routine.

From the start of racing in Singapore on Thursday, the skippers, who include Britain’s Sir Ben Ainslie have been caught out by ‘massive’ gusts which almost upended Alinghi on the first day and caused a crash between Oman Air and Realstone the next.

“We could feel the conditions getting fruity and we were massively relieved to have got through the finish line,” said Leigh McMillan, skipper of The Wave, Muscat, the race winners.

“The wind was coming in so fast and there was this bottleneck with nowhere for the boats to go. When the gusts hit, you lose control and there is nothing you can do. We were extremely concerned and were waiting to hear that everyone was safe.

“Ideally we would be in slightly less risky conditions,” he added.

“There have been plenty of close moments when things could have gone horribly wrong and there has to be some consideration for the safety of the crews and make sure the organisers are not forcing us into dangerous situations.”

Rob Greenhalgh, skipper of Oman Air, said the conditions were on the limit but acceptable.

“If people had been hurt, they would be asking different questions but the gusts go from 5 knots to 20 knots and there are a lot of boats in confined spaces so there are always going to be accidents. Everyone knows this racing is close to the edge and no one is raising serious safety issues.”

Phil Lawrence, Extreme Sailing Series Race Director assured the 12 Extreme crews that he had no doubts over safety in the conditions and all their safety protocols had worked.

“If there had been any doubts about whether it was safe to race, we would have stopped racing,” he said.

“We have a whole safety protocol here and review it before each race. We decided not to put guest sailors on board today because of the gusts and after Race 21, our team who monitor wind strength at all times reported that the gusts had reached their pre-designated limits so we stopped racing.

“It was an unfortunate incident and we are very happy no one was hurt,” he said.

With one day of racing in Singapore remaining, Morgan Larsen and Alinghi are well placed at the top of the leaderboard with two times Extreme champion McMillan in second place on The Wave Muscat, having risen from 10th place on Thursday. Ainslie and his crew on JP Morgan BAR is in 5th place at his first Extreme event as skipper.

Friday, 21 February 2014

This is a real test, admits Sir Ben Ainslie after second day of Extreme Sailing Series Singapore

Wild swings between first and last are not the norm in Sir Ben Ainslie’s career but in the opening bouts of the 2014 Extreme Sailing Series in Singapore, his brand new JP Morgan BAR Extreme 40 campaign is striving to match the consistency shown by more experienced Extreme 40 campaigners.

After two days of racing, the world’s most celebrated sailor is running up more wooden spoons than victory garlands as the fleet of 12 Extreme 40 catamarans tries to get to grips with a tiny stadium course in Singapore’s city centre Marina Bay where some highly unpredictable wind patterns have prevailed.

A fluky 12 knot breeze with patches of no wind at all were mixed up with massive 28 knot gusts which caught many by surprise including the Swiss team Alinghi who were almost upended and Oman Air who careered straight into Realstone.

“I think all the teams are finding it testing but that is part of the challenge racing on such a confined course. You just have to take it on and deal with it,” he told Telegraph Sport. 

“If you compare this race track with the F1 race tracks, then Singapore would be one of the most difficult venue. One minute we had 20 knots of wind and the next we had nothing and on these short courses it’s really hard but it’s the same for all the teams.

“It’s not the easiest venue to bring a brand new team to and start working things out and we have been put under a lot of pressure early on to deal with such extreme conditions but in a way that is a good thing because you have to quickly work out who is doing what and how to make decisions.”

One of Ainslie’s unique talents is seeing wind where others don’t but it was much as he and his Olympic medallist crew Pippa Wilson and Paul Goodison could do to stay on top of the conditions and in the top half of the fleet, notching up just one podium place in six races and sitting in fifth place overall.

There will be around 250 races over the course of the next ten months as the Extreme Sailing Series moves around the world from Oman to China, Russia and the UK, Rio, Turkey and Australia. 

By the end JP Morgan BAR is likely to be among the title contenders but for the moment Ainslie is biding his time, happy to make incremental gains on a steep learning curve while long in the tooth Extreme 40 skippers such as Morgan Larsen of Alinghi and Leigh McMillan of The Wave Muscat hog the rostrum.

America’s Cup winners from 2007 Alinghi were lying at the top of the leaderboard today with Dean Barker’s Emirates Team New Zealand in second place.

“Alinghi sailed really well today but we are not doing too badly,” said Ainslie. 

“We are right up there and we have a huge amount we can improve on so feel we have a lot of potential. It would be fantastic if we could finish on the podium in our first event and we think we have a good shot at it.”

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Ainslie v Barker.....its all in the Singapore shifts

New Zealand’s losing America’s Cup skipper Dean Barker grabbed his opportunity to get even with Sir Ben Ainslie today in their first clash since the dramatic America’s Cup climax last September and finished all square at the end of the first day’s racing in the 2014 Extreme Sailing Series in Singapore.

A stressful day of eight races, all lasting less than ten minutes on tight stadium courses in front of packed city centre crowds, saw Ainslie of JP Morgan BAR and Barker who is once again at the helm of Emirates Team New Zealand continue the compelling sporting contest that captivated the world five months ago, with Barker finishing the first of four day’s racing with a small lead over Britain’s sailing superstar.

Ben and Deano - before the bunfight!!

Both teams posted two outright wins from eight races but both struggled with the fickle winds and compact race tracks by also taking the wooden spoon in several races in a contest likened by some of the 12 Extreme 40 skippers to ‘rolling a dice’.

“We’re all having to learn pretty quickly, and certainly in this tight venue - even for the experienced guys it’s pretty tough,” said Ainslie.

“It’s a really strong fleet, it’s one of the toughest fields we’ve ever had and we’re obviously very new to this so we really learnt a lot today.”

Winds reached no higher than a gentle 10 knots with tricky 90 degree shifts and not surprisingly, the day was dominated by crews who are more used to sailing on lakes than open seas so it was the Swiss teams Alinghi and Realtstone, who both train on Swiss and Italian lakes, who fared best and now occupy the two top slots on the overall leaderboard.

There were plenty of start line errors and near collisions as the close quartered racing proved entertaining but for some, it was also costly.

Defending champions The Wave Muscat suffered damage to their bow when they collided with GAC Pindar which earned the Omani boat a 45 second penalty and consigned the Australians to a night in the boat shed making repairs.

The 12 strong Extreme 40 fleet in Singapore. Great pic!

“GAC Pindar put in a tack, and at the last minute they looked like they weren’t going to avoid us,” explained skipper Leigh McMillan.

“I tried to smash it into a tack but there wasn’t anywhere to go – plus I lost grip of the tiller and tripped over, and unfortunately went into them.”