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Racers sail a fine line with Volvo 70s

Another boat in the Volvo Ocean Race turns back because of problems with the canting keel

Another boat in the Volvo Ocean Race turns back because of problems with the canting keel

Less than 48 hours after the start of the Volvo Ocean Race’s second leg, one of the round-the-world raceboats had turned back with a failure in its canting keel, a problem that plagued boats earlier, as well.

Ericsson Racing Team was sailing in second place at 10 knots in 15-20 knots of wind when a piston rod broke in one of the hydraulic rams that control the 70-foot Volvo Ocean Racer’s canting keel.

“We first became aware of the failure at about 01.00 GMT when we heard an unidentified bang, that later we identified as a failure to one of our piston rods,” said Ericsson skipper Neal McDonald in an e-mail report. Ericsson and six other boats had left Cape Town, South Africa, Jan. 2 on the 6,100-mile leg to Melbourne, Australia. McDonald decided to withdraw from the leg and transport the boat from Port Elisabeth, South Africa to Melbourne, Australia, on the deck of a ship while a team works on analyzing the failure and designing a more rugged ram.

Ericsson also struggled with keel problems in the first leg. It lost power to its hydraulic rams late in that leg, and had to drop back and limp to the finish. Paul Cayard’s Pirates of the Caribbean and the Spanish entry Movistar, captained by veteran Dutch skipper Bouwe Bekking, also returned to port to repair canting keels in the first leg.

John Kostecki, Ericsson’s tactician in the inshore racing during the Cape Town layover, said use of canting keels on such large boats is new, and most of the Volvo 70s launched late without enough time to test the systems exhaustively in all weather conditions.

“They were not properly prepared for the race,” he said. “And they have been seeing conditions they had not seen before on these boats.”

Kostecki said Ericsson’s ram gave out after two days of rough upwind sailing in the Southern Ocean. “The boats are having problems again,” he said. “I know Neal is going to want to make sure everything is working and safe before going back on the Southern Ocean,” where boats can be far from help if anything goes wrong, Kostecki said.

He said the new 70-foot Volvo Ocean Racers generate enormous forces and loads that only can be estimated until the boats are tested and trialed exhaustively. He believes skippers and designers will work the wrinkles out of the keel technology, and soon it will be de rigeuer.

“This is a little on the leading edge of the sport,” he said. “With a canting keel, a boat can go much faster. It’s more powerful, and it’s easier to sail. For sure, it’s the wave of the future.”

Mike Sanderson, skipper on first-place ABN Amro One, weighed in on the keels and seaworthiness of the new Volvo 70 designs, e-mailing a defense of the yachts from sea. “I heard through the grapevine that there is a growing concern that these boats are dangerous and that we are being reckless out here,” Sanderson wrote. “I just want to take this opportunity to say that I will happily sit down with anyone and explain to them the thousands of hours that have gone into making Team ABN Amro’s keel systems as safe as possible.”

Sanderson blamed the failures not on the Volvo 70 rule but on designers and race teams who miscalculated as they tried to optimize the rule to save as much weight, gain as much speed and concentrate as much of the boat’s weight in the keel bulb as possible.

“Everyone called for a more exciting boat, both the public and the sailors and guess what ... we got it!” he wrote. “To think that these boats have gone out at just 70 feet long and have, on three occasions, broken the 24-hour record that was set by Mari Cha IV, which was built for the purpose of beating records, just blows me away.

“Volvo has supplied us with a rule that makes fantastic boats. The fact that they are having such a high attrition rate is only the fault of the teams and designers. The breakages are all from weight reduction decisions that have been made by either the design team or the racing team, and we all knew the whole time that we needed a big bulb on the keel to win the race. We also knew that we needed to finish the legs to win the race, and it will be he who has walked that fine line correctly at the end of the day that will come out on top — and we won’t know who that is for another seven months yet.”

Kostecki says racing the new, light, powerful Volvo 70s inshore during the layovers has been a challenge. “You’re racing an offshore-rigged boat around the buoys,” he said. In Cape Town, the crewmembers have just raced thousands of miles down the Atlantic Ocean, and their inshore racing skills were rusty. “They did maybe three tacks in 6,500 miles,” he said. “Now [in the inshore racing] it’s a totally different ballgame.”

When racing inshore, the Volvo boats are restricted to 11 crewmembers, which is short-handed for the intense round-the-buoys competition. Kostecki notes that America’s Cup boats race with 17 crewmembers. “Everything just takes a little bit more time,” he says. “It keeps it interesting.”

Ericsson finished first in the inshore racing off Spain in light air but came in sixth in the races off Cape Town in windy conditions — 30 to 40 knots raced with reefed mains and No. 4 jibs.