With only two days to go before the start the skippers and their teams are down to the fine strokes. Packing their freeze dried food and obsessing over weather reports.
I remember in 2008 you could really tell which teams were ready. On the one hand there was Steve White who seemed to be up all night every night working on his boat. He had the thing in pieces all over the dock with lots of team members standing around looking confused about what to do next. And then there was Michel Desjoyeaux who went on to win the race. Neither he nor his team was anywhere to be seen the week before the race, except two days before the start a guy showed up to wash the dock where his boat was moored. Even the boat did not need cleaning! Not sure if anyone noticed but washing the dock seemed to be sending a message to all the others who were frantically preparing. I was impressed.
In listening to interviews with the skippers and much of what I read, one of the issues that seems to have emerged among the front runners is the debate between reliability and having the latest technology. There seems to be a split opinion on this. Several of the top skippers claim to have opted for an older generation boat and worked mainly on improving reliability rather than seeking that last 2-3% in a speed advantage. On the other side are boats like Safran and Virbac Paprec 3 which are new designs and are clearly aimed at gaining a speed advantage. The French love fashion and they are good at it. To be fair, someone needs to push the envelop or there will be no development, but it should not be an easy choice.
The two British Skippers - Mike Golding and Alex Thomson have been singing the praises of their older more reliable boats. Is this really just the positive self talk of skippers who had less to spend this time around or is this a genuine debate? With the melt down in the global economy there is no question that money for yacht racing at this level has been hard to find and that has to boil down to decisions about building a new boat for some teams. For sure Sam Davies was honest in her assessment of her older generation boat. It was what she could afford and she has not even had time to focus on reliability because of the shortness of time available to prepare for a variety of reasons including the birth of her son:) She is hopeful that the older generation boat will provide that reliability but has not justified her decision in any way. Gotta like her unapologetic honesty. If she were Canadian she would apologize for it :)
Check out the specs on Virbac. This is an amazing machine. Curved dagger boards. Only 2 Spreaders instead of 3. They really went to town on weight saving ideas.
Based on my observations of the last race there is a lot to be said for a reliable boat over one that goes a little faster. It's just so tempting to try something new when 2% more speed can put your over a 1000 nm ahead of your slightly slower competitor over the course of a 27,000nm race that probably actually ends up closer to 35,000 nm after all the tacking and gybing. The reality is the race is not sailed on paper or in a computer generated model (unless you are doing the virtual race). Check out the Virtual race.
One design feature that seems to have been universally adopted this time around is more protection for the skipper in the cockpit. Most of the boats have cabin tops that extend far back toward the transom to cover a large area of the cockpit and thus protect the skipper from the elements. Some designs like Virbac Paprec 3 go to extremes. It almost looks like he will not have to go "outside" much. Its almost like having a sun porch rather than a cockpit. This added comfort will be important in keeping up energy levels needed to drive the boat fast for three months.
We will soon see the results of old vs. new. The first few days of racing will be upwind until they get to the Trades. This could be a bumpy ride if there is much wave action (seaway). The boats are optimized for power reaching and so they should be closer in speed sailing upwind. Should be fun to watch some close quarters racing for the first few days.