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The sea is not kind to sailors on boats that fly

2024 March 1

I’ve heard people express sympathy for the men and women sailing in the Ocean Globe Race.

That’s the 27,000-mile race that started last September and will go on for about eight months with short breaks between legs. Some observers think it is the most demanding of all the round-the-world sailboat races because of its extraordinarily punishing rules.

They consider it an ordeal for participants because the rules require the race to be sailed in old fiberglass production boats built before 1988 with no 21st-century technology allowed.

That means the sailors never know exactly where they are because GPS is forbidden in all forms, which leaves position finding dependent on the 265-year-old technology of the sextant.

Steering is either onerous, with humans standing long watches at the helm, or imprecise, with old-school wind vane autopilots steering approximate courses. The computer-controlled electronic autopilots that do most of the steering on modern boats racing around the world are not allowed. In fact, no computers of any kind can be on the boats.

Unlike state-of-the-art ocean racers, the boats in the Globe race are too slow to dodge or outrun threatening weather systems. Not that it matters much, because the only weather information allowed is what is available from paper-print weather fax receivers. There are no GRIB files or other sophisticated weather data because satellite receivers and transmitters are not permitted.

And then there is the cruelest rule of all: There shall be no smartphones. Crews have to endure months of separation from their iPhones.  

That’s a lot to sacrifice for the privilege of sailing around the world, but I don’t feel sorry for the Ocean Globe Race sailors. They actually have a big advantage over the crews of the highest-tech monohulls ever to race around the world, the flying, foiling IMOCA 60s in the 2023 edition of The Ocean Race. The prosaic displacement boats in the Globe race are seakindly. The foilers definitely are not—they abuse their crews with rides from hell.

Here are some snippets from video interviews with various crewmembers on what it’s like to sail on an IMOCA (International Monohull Class Association) boat:

“Being on an IMOCA feels like being stuck in a washing machine on high speed.”

“It was the worst moment of my life. I just wanted to die.”

“It was total dementia.”

“I took my Stugeron (seasickness medication) and then tried meditation. You just have to embrace it. We have to deal with it.”

IMOCA boats have something in common with a contraption developed by the U.S. Navy to study the effects of extreme, chaotic motion on humans. Navy volunteers ride in the 50-foot-long machine for an hour of being violently tossed, turned and shaken. Avoiding motion sickness is not an option.

At 60-feet, the IMOCA boats are longer than the Navy torture machine, but they have similarities. Their sailors ride in the confines of a spartan cabin or the enclosed cockpit. Even steering is done below deck with an electronic control pad. And judging from a YouTube video of a French crew in the Ocean Race, the washing machine metaphor is spot on. 

I will say the sailors in that below-deck video seemed cheerful enough considering the beating they were taking. Maybe that was because the video was made after weeks of sailing and they were acclimated to the insane motion. But at some point, almost everyone on these boats, even gnarly ocean-racing veterans with cast-iron stomachs, succumbs to mal de mer.

The foilers can ride above the water, but that gives them such outlandish speed—35 knots is common and 40 has been surpassed—that they fly over the waves and then land in an ear-piercing, tooth-rattling crash. On impact, the carbon fiber hulls produce a percussion cacophony that might seem like being trapped in a large drum played by an over active drummer.

By the way, carbon fiber in any form, even something as innocuous as a winch handle, is forbidden in the Ocean Globe Race.

The Globe Race boats, all designed at least 35 years ago, most of them built by Nautor Swan, come by their seakindliness with hulls made of basic glass-reinforced plastic. Heavy by today’s standards, they have round bilges rather than flat bottoms or chines. They displace water, rather than sail over it. This is no guarantee of a smooth ride in rough seas, but compared to modern racing designs, their motion is sedate.

I sailed a good many miles in full-bodied boats, and they were indeed seakindly. They were also slow, sluggish by today’s standards. Which is why, desirable as it may be, seakindliness is a dated concept that isn’t much of a factor in modern sailboat design. 

Improved construction techniques and materials make hulls light yet strong enough to be seaworthy with flatish bottoms and slim appendages. Cruising boats can have palatial accommodations and still be light enough to be good sailing performers. Production-built cruiser-racers can plane and surf even in moderately strong breezes and sail circles around their predecessors in any conditions.

All of this is at the expense of seakindliness. In choppy seas, today’s high-performance sailboats jump around in unpredictable ways, putting a premium on the balance skills of anyone leaving the cockpit. In rough conditions, they yaw aggressively rather than roll as boats are expected to do. 

Sailing upwind in a seaway, they are prone to pounding. My earlier comment about the crash-bangs of carbon fiber hulls landing after leaping off waves was based on personal experience. A few hours of it are enough to inspire longing for a quiet life on shore as a monk or a librarian.

Still, I say these trade-offs for faster sailing are worth it. And the next time an upwind pounding marathon threatens to drive me to distraction, I’m going to think of those poor wretches on IMOCA boats and know it could be worse.