The Driving Force

Dobbs Davis talks to veteran Volvo Ocean Race skipper and North Sails president Ken Read and VO65 sail programme manager Bruno Dubois

The bold step the Volvo Ocean Race has made to the VO65 one-design format is good for cost saving, for measurement control, closeness in competition and for central control on the design and build so the boats are strong enough to withstand the rigours of the race itself. Plus, provided the engineering is right, the boats can be used for multiple event cycles. That is why the next race will undoubtedly be more accessible than many before it.

Of course, some idealists might observe that the lack of room for creativity is something of a downside, but few of those same purists are likely to be writing the cheques nor working all hours to secure funding for a programme. By contrast, virtually all the feedback received to date more clearly reflects the views of VO70 skipper Ian Walker, who recently committed to a second race under the colours of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing: ‘Frankly, had the next race not gone one-design I would not be doing it. The commercial risk to a sponsor of having a boat that is fundamentally off the pace is simply too great. As is the strain on the crew when doing such a long event…’

The sails, too, all have to be identical this time around. And this is even more restrictive than what most recreational sailors encounter with their own onedesigns, with most classes limiting sails in number, size and perhaps material, but very rarely in design and construction.

Sail design and integration

As a veteran of the race with Puma, but also as a past champion in numerous onedesign classes, a lifelong sailmaker and now president of North Sails, Ken Read is very well positioned to understand the trade-offs necessary to achieve the goals of the new VO65 sail programme.

‘This was very much an integrated approach,’ said Read, ‘between the boat, the sail and the rig designers, so that we made sure we were all on the same page. This is really important: there’s no time or money to go through a prototype phase to make later improvements; this one has to be right the first time around.’

The process began with North’s suite of design software developed by Michael Richelsen and JB Braun being used to provide Farr Yacht Design with the drive force coefficients produced by the sails that they needed for the boat design. This is also translated into load calculations and deformed flying shapes that affect the rig and deck hardware – which in turn relate to hardware and construction choices for the builder.

It is particularly important to find the right compromise of luff sag vs rig load, while also making sure the rig works in harmony across the wind range and in various reefing configurations. This was challenging with the proposed deck-stepped rig, along with the added constraint of not being able to adjust the runner and checkstay relative to each other – a choice made on grounds of simplicity and reliability.

It required several iterations between Southern Spars and North to get the stiffness distribution of the tube and aft rigging positions on the mast right, to ensure the right amount of bend in the right place to achieve the desired mainsail flying shape.

As for the sail designs, here Read defers comment to another principal player from North, Bruno Dubois, whose expertise in offshore sail design comes from not only being part of the sail design group at Groupama Sailing Team, winners of the last Volvo Ocean Race, but also decades of experience on the French offshore multihull and Open class scene. Dubois and his team at North Sails France have also been involved with the MOD 70s, the offshore multihull class launched last year that has been using the same complete one-design approach as the VO65s, including carrying identical sails.

‘The sail designers from all of the Volvo race teams first met as a group at the Miami stopover in the last race to begin our debrief on designs,’ said Dubois.

‘My colleague Gauthier [Sergent], sail designer for Groupama in the last edition, as the sail design co-ordinator for the VO65 within North Sails then began to collate all this input so that work could get started to give some estimates to Farr and Southern Spars for their design work. We all met as a group again in March in Minden, Nevada at the North 3Di facility to finalise the designs for the inventory to be made for each boat.

‘This was a very productive week of sharing a complete range of information from each team,’ said Read. ‘With Dan Neri taking the lead, all the details of design, trim and construction were shared from the eight designers in the last race, and the best of the best was distilled from this to create a new baseline of knowledge that will not only benefit this next generation of VO65 sails, but all other offshore sails in the North product line.’

Dubois says that this input also involved feedback on the details of the rig design, important for sail designers not just for obvious sizing details, but also for how the rig controls can influence sail shaping and the sail-handling techniques of the crews.

‘Southern Spars will supply the carbon EC6 standing rigging and the spar will be fairly simple,’ said Dubois. ‘It will have no jumpers, a topmast backstay that can be reefed to the hounds by a deflector, and a checkstay with a deflector to control midrig bend.’ This set-up has eliminated two aft stays compared to what was used on Camper, Groupama and most other VO70s in the last race, but Dubois feels this should still give good mainsail control across the wide range of conditions encountered over this 40,000-mile course.

The sails

  • Mainsail: fully battened, three reefs
  •  J1: good for 8-15kt upwind, has hanks and battens
  •  J2: good for 13-25kt, on a furler with vertical leech battens
  •  J3: good for 22-35kt, also on a furler with vertical leech battens
  •  J5: good for 35kt+ as a storm jib, and also as a staysail
  •  Fractional Code 0 spinnaker (affectionately dubbed the ‘fro’): used in a broad range of angles, sheets to the outrigger
  •  Masthead Code 0: used in 0-6kt upwind, or downwind in more breeze
  •  Masthead A3 gennaker: the only dedicated downwind sail, typically used at true wind angles of 120° and above

There is also a J4 jib, good for 35kt+ as a storm jib, but this will be sealed and stored inside the boat and only used with the consent of the race committee.

All sails but one will be built to varying deniers using North’s 3Di process, using laminate tapes made of black Twaron Aramid and clear Dyneema SK75 fibres.

Cost is an issue throughout the VO65 gestation. Dubois explains that there is no carbon in these sails, as ‘there is no reason for this given the brittle nature of carbon and the extreme strength and stability we can achieve already with 3Di’. Interestingly, carbon sail material can also interfere with Satcom communications, something that is unacceptable for the VOR.

The masthead A3 gennaker, however, is built as a panelled sail using Cuben Fibre, a proprietary high-modulus fibre-resin laminate originally developed during Bill Koch’s highly scientific America3 programme for the 1992 America’s Cup.

Top: the carefully protected deck of boat no1 during final fitting out at Green Marine.
Above: illustrations of the use of the VO65’s supplied sheeting strut in its two different locations, midships by the shrouds with a headsail (left) and aft using a gennaker (right)

Dubois said the choice of 3Di materials was based on the experience shared at recent designer debrief sessions, including the freshly arrived Vendée Globe, as well as North’s own knowledge and widespread use of 3Di on similar-sized boats.

The VO65s also feature well-proven furlers from KZ Marine in New Zealand, carbon battens from C-Tech and furling cables by Future Fibres in Valencia.

Inventory management

Each VO65 must get around the world with a very limited inventory of sails compared to what most teams were used to in the past: just eight race sails are allowed onboard, with no (non-repair) recuts and only a very limited number of replacement sails.

There are no inventory options to choose from this time around, no development of new designs, no wishlist of new sails to fit unfilled niches in the sail inventory chart. For each team you get what you get, so you better learn to trim it fast and make it last.

The sail scheme works as follows: once a team commits to the race and takes delivery of their boat, they are given eight practice sails to use to train before the race. Then when the race is about to start the teams are given a new full inventory of eight new sails to use in the race and the choice of four extra sail cards to be decided prior to the racestart which cannot include a mainsail.

For the most competitive offshore sailors this will seem like a radical notion – the idea of not being allowed to tinker and experiment with new designs to find a sweet spot in a performance niche that the competition does not have – but for the next two races they will have to focus on other ways to optimise.

Dubois says that due to the great effort placed on sail designs it is ‘unlikely’ that there will be any significant difference between practice and race sails, except possibly for some improvements in finishing details as a result of ongoing feedback from the teams.

Production and delivery will be carefully controlled, and a practice set of sails will be built and made available as the boats come off the production line every seven weeks. Race sails will also be built in batches, such that the same mould is used for the production of eight sails of one type – several moulds working in parallel on different sail types. Each sail type will then be finished in the same loft by the same team in one go, to ensure exactly the same shape and production quality.

New features

Dubois is sure the lack of sail development will prove tough for some, but there are plenty of variables to play with, even with identical sails. Some of these will no doubt mean the novel trimming techniques that all offshore sailors hook into in the hunt for speed, but others will involve the use of new equipment. One such item is an outrigger that can extend 1.5m outside the hull either midships for the jibs or aft near the stern for the MH0, FR0 and A3. Sheets run through blocks on the outriggers to open up the sheeting angles off the wind.

‘The outriggers will be something new to many teams,’ said Dubois, ‘even though they have been used in Imoca 60s for some time. Not only do they extend the range of the headsails and spinnakers, but out - riggers will also reduce the wear these sails would normally get being bent around the spar and rigging and flogging in the head when eased for deeper angles.’

Other features that may lead teams towards personalised schemes include the ballast tanks – one 1100-litre tank forward on centreline and two 800-litre aft wing tanks – plus the canting keel, of course, which is inclined at an angle by means of an angled pivot to improve foil efficiency.


At US$350,000 per inventory, the new scheme for a controlled suit of only 12 sails represents an enormous cost saving compared to past VO70 programmes, where as many as 32 extremely expensive sails would be built in a single race cycle. Considering the boat size, anybody who has recently purchased offshore race sails will quickly work out just what a good deal this represents for the sail wardrobe for an extremely powerful 65-footer with oceanic ambition.

This all contributes to the much lower programme costs this time, targeted at 12.5 million euros against up to 35 million euros in previous races, bringing the VOR within reach of more teams and making for more efficient use of time to focus on training rather than fundraising.

‘I’ve said this so many times: never commit to this race unless you have all the funding upfront,’ says Read. ‘Otherwise you are too focused on fundraising and not on the race. And in a one-design race that focus will become more important than ever.’

Meanwhile, Bruno Dubois has little time for those who suggest that a onedesign lessens the need to start early. ‘Early commitment is as important as it ever was,’ he says. ‘The winning team is likely to be among those who got their VO65s early to learn the boat.

‘Time in a new boat is always invaluable. Clever sailors will always find ways to make a boat faster, and those who have more time to do so will always be a step ahead of those who did not.

‘Regardless, we are very excited to be part of this next race. It will be extremely close and very, very competitive…’

Click here for more information on the Volvo Ocean Race »

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