The two things nobody really expected from the 2017-18 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race were, firstly, that a new 24-distance record would be set, and secondly, that for the first time in the race’s 45-year history a team would break through the 600 nautical-mile (1,111-kilometer) barrier.
The reason for the cynicism that either of these would happen is mainly due to perceived wisdom that the current fleet of one-design Volvo Ocean 65 yachts are comparative slowcoaches compared with the full-bore, custom-built, Volvo Open 70s used from the 2005-06 edition through to the 2011-12 race.
It was a one of the ferocious VO70 boats – Ericsson 4, skippered by Brazilian sailing superhero Torben Grael in the 2008-09 race – which set a benchmark 24-hour distance of 596.6 nm (1,104.9 km) in the south Atlantic Ocean on the opening leg from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa.
Back then the navigator on Ericsson 4 was Britain’s Jules Salter, who remembers the crew’s record breaking run as being far from straightforward and almost ending in disaster.
“It was wet and wild for sure, but it wasn’t a case of just hanging on and sailing as fast as we could,” Salter recalled.
“We had to do several sail changes along the way, which us cost time. Then at the end we hit something with one of the rudders and had to slow down because the boat was starting to sink.”
Despite the almost calamitous ending Ericsson 4’s 24-hour distance record stood for a remarkable 10-years until May this year when the Dutch-flagged team AkzoNobel blew it apart with a breathtaking run of 602.51 nautical miles (1,115.8 km).
AkzoNobel’s new record came on Leg 9 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 – a transatlantic sprint across from Newport, Rhode Island in the United States to Cardiff, Wales.
Serendipitously, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the AkzoNobel navigator masterminding the record setting run was no other than the previous record holder, Jules Salter.
“It’s never nice when someone else breaks your record,” Salter told me, a barely perceptible smile breaking through his normally taciturn face. “So it was nice to be on board to set the new record.”
According to Salter breaking records was not uppermost in his or the other sailors’ minds. Rather the opportunity came at a time when the crew was fully-focused on overhauling the other Dutch-flagged entry Team Brunel to take the Leg 9 lead.
“To set records you need a few things to line up for you,” Salter said. “First of all, it’s not usually easy to find 600 miles of ocean where you can sail in a straight line. That’s what I’m always looking for as a racing navigator – the opportunity to sail in a straight line for long periods of time without having to make any direction or sail changes.
“This time the alignment of the jet stream meant the direction of the surface enabled us to take advantage of the right-hand curve of the great circle route. Plus we managed to sail in the Gulf Stream for long periods (normally you only dip in and out of it) with positive current of three or four knots at times.”
Given these unique set of circumstances – that enabled the team AkzoNobel crew to hit 32 knots at times and average over 25 knots during the rolling 24-hour period – Salter believes the Volvo Ocean Race record (which is only 16 nm short of the outright monohull record of 618.01 nm set in 2015 by the American 100-foot Comanche) should stand for a while.
“It depends what boats are chosen for the next race of course,” Salter said. “But it’s unlikely a Volvo Ocean 65 will get close to it without a similar line up of weather conditions.”
Meanwhile, if Torben Grael was suffering at all after being deposed from his position as the fastest skipper in Volvo Ocean Race history, his anguish must surely have been tempered by the fact that his daughter Martine – best known until now for winning Olympic gold in the 49erFX class at Rio 2016 – was on board team AkzoNobel as a helmsman for the new record.
Although he could be in for a bit of ribbing the next time Martine comes home.
“I think there will be some interesting conversations around the family dinner table about who is the fastest sailor,” Martine said after arriving on the dock in Cardiff. “The rest of the crew want me to call him ‘Captain Slow’, but I’m not sure that is going to happen.”
By Justin Chisholm