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North Sails 2019 - NSVictoryList - Leaderboard

Raising the bar: We speak to Gautier Sergent of North Sails

by Mark Jardine, 24 Sep 2018 04:00 PDT
Team flying the A3 during the Volvo Ocean Race © Pedro Martinez / Volvo Ocean Race

We spoke to Gautier Sergent of North Sails about the Volvo Ocean Race, how the sails have moved on in the two editions using the Volvo Ocean 65s, what North Sails have learnt from how the sailors then sailed the boats with the new inventories for the 2017-18 race, and his thoughts on what the future could bring. In the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18, the sail which was most noticeable was the A3, as it marked a shift to a full 3Di wardrobe. What exactly is that sail and what difference has it made?

Gautier Sergent: This was designed as a VMG running sail, which is a hybrid reaching gennaker. It was inspired from the previous iteration of the race, but whereas that was a panel sail, the A3 was 3Di as we'd made some prototypes and were confident it was ready for the rigours of the Volvo Ocean Race. The reward was letting the sailors benefit from its unmatched shape holding. It was a big 'leap of faith' as we'd made sails like this for Maxis and IMOCA 60s, but they don't push the sails to the limits in the same way as the Volvo Ocean Race teams do. Moving to a full 3Di inventory was a big step for us.

On the shape the A3 was slightly smaller; less luff-round and less leach roach to make it more versatile, as the feedback we'd had was the previous sail was too one-dimensional and limited to a small range of angles. When it came to the race itself, we saw the teams sailing in completely new ways which we hadn't foreseen and as a consequence the A3 was not used much at all offshore. The Volvo Ocean Race sailors push the boats so hard, and we saw the Volvo Ocean 65s sailing with three headsails. Was this something you were anticipating?

Gautier: Not to this extent. In the Volvo Ocean Race we try to find new sail configurations, especially in the one-design environment as the boats spend so much time side-by-side. There's no better way to find the optimal setup than two boat testing, and essentially that's what they've been doing around the world.

We know the sailors have learnt to sail those boats to their maximum potential. Downwind this happened to be sailing with a big Code Zero, J2 and J3 – triple-headed at high angles. The teams chose to sail VMC (Velocity Made Good on Course) instead of VMG, trying to get to the next shift or to more wind pressure.

They've also found new ways of using the keel, as the Volvo Ocean 65s are quite tricky to sail downwind as they have a tilted pin angle on the keel which increases the angle of attack on the keel fin as it is canted to windward - this generates lift, reducing your righting moment. On full cant at high speed the lift was quite a big force, so the teams were reducing the cant angle on the keel to gain some righting moment back. This is one of the reason why the triple-headed setup came in to play, sailing fast at tighter angles, resulting in VMC being faster than VMG downwind. The Volvo Ocean Race must be a sailmaker's dream as the ultimate testbed with the best sailors.

Gautier: It's a dream, but you hope it doesn't turn into a nightmare! If something goes wrong on one boat, then you can expect the other boats to follow suit and everything to fall apart. We had a huge reduction in the number of sails when the Volvo Ocean Race moved to one-designs – just eleven sails, which had never been done before. We trusted that 3Di could do it and that we could engineer it so that the sails would last without adding weight. This time we had a few more sails to make the rules simpler – last time if you damaged a sail beyond repair you had to go to the Jury which was a messy process, or you could be left without a sail, which would be the end of your race. The decision by the organisers was to give each team two of each sail, giving teams that backup.

We changed the product for the 2017-18 edition. We'd previously used 3Di ENDURANCE which is more rugged, this time we went to 3Di RAW which is much lighter. This was a big step for us as RAW was initially designed during the America's Cup in San Francisco, moving on to TP52s and Maxi Class 72s for inshore races and then the IMOCAs for the Vendee Globe. The Volvo Ocean Race is always at another level with how they torture sails, so it was a little daunting, but they survived. 3Di is remarkable with its longevity, but here you used 3Di RAW, brought in as the ultimate weight-saving product for inshore just five years ago, taken to offshore.

Gautier: Exactly, that was the challenge of this last edition. I'm not sure why we put ourselves through this every time! We don't play it safe as pushing the limits is in our DNA. North Sails must work very closely with the Volvo Ocean Race teams. What has the feedback been like with this edition of the race?

Gautier: We run the sailmaking side of TheBoatyard with the Volvo Ocean Race. They provide the setup to maintain the sails with three sailmakers and two from North Sails at every stopover. I was at every stopover, talking to the sailors as they come off the boat to get a clear idea of what has happened. We unrolled, checked and inspected every sail at every stopover, making sure there was no 'epidemic'. This alone is no easy task with close to 100 sails to handle over a short period. It's one thing to fix sails for wear and tear, but we had to be sure we had the full story from the teams and they had to trust us that we would keep that information to ourselves. We had to make sure that any damage we saw was operator error, handling error or catastrophic event – not related to engineering or manufacture of the sail. The key for that was building trust with the teams and having nearly the same set of sailmakers as the previous edition went a long way to building that trust.

We aren't allowed to modify the shape during stopovers, ensuring that all the teams are treated in the same way. If teams want to push sails hard then that is their problem, and we had to gauge whether the wear we were seeing was due to normal ageing or whether we had an engineering problem. If the issue was fleet-wide then we may have had an issue, but if it's isolated to one team then chances are that they did something wrong with the sail or pushed harder.

It was fascinating to see the exact same sails put through the same piece of ocean on the same boats sailing side-by-side, then look at the sails after each leg and, depending on how the boats were sailed, they didn't look the same afterwards. Some teams decided to push hard early on, usually those who had the most time preparing for the race, getting points in the bank, whereas those teams who had very little preparation didn't rotate sails until New Zealand or Brazil, electing to learn how to sail the boats fast during the race and not compromising all the sails while they learnt how to push the boats hard - this showed with Team Brunel's speed later on in the race. Does this mean, for example if the draft is looking too far back in a sail, you can't just go in and alter the luff curve to compensate?

Gautier: That was the challenge of the race; we couldn't do any re-cuts which would affect the shape intentionally, we can only repair sails if we think that the integrity is compromised. With only five sailmakers at the stopovers, you want to have trust in what you've designed and engineered, and that nothing major is going to happen. As a sail designer or a sailmaker it is hard to resist the temptation to make a sail better but we this is the nature of the One Design environment and first and foremost you have to keep it fair for everyone. We sure got a lot of pressure. The future of the Volvo Ocean Race is looking very interesting with the Volvo Ocean 65s returning and a foiling IMOCA 60, be that a one-design or a development class. Will the challenges and the pressures that Volvo crews put on boats be stepped up to another level with a foiling IMOCA?

Gautier: It's a big discussion right now. In theory the IMOCA class is in control as that's their class and their rules. The discussion is: do we allow a stronger mast, or do we limit the size of the foils so that they can't generate the crazy righting moments? It's a tricky balancing act as you want to keep the race open to existing IMOCAs and try to make sure the boats will sustain the abuse of the Volvo Ocean Race.

The current sail setups on the Volvo Ocean 65 and the IMOCA 60 are completely different with the 65s sails being much stronger – which is needed as they're still racing hard in 40 to 45 knots. In this race watching them gybe every two hours along the ice limit in the Southern Ocean: there's no slowing down or backing off. The IMOCAs are backing off earlier and they can't take that abuse.

The 2017-18 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race was incredibly windy and now they've pushed the 24-hour record to not far off the distance set by Comanche - which is a 100-foot super-maxi - it shows you just how hard they push these boats. Earlier on you talked about having to take a 'leap of faith' in the Volvo Ocean Race, going completely 3Di RAW for the sail inventory. What leaps of faith do you think you'll have to make for the next race?

Gautier: The next race sounds like it won't be one-design, so we're going to have to push another level and look at weight saving even more. We'll have to make sails lighter again, be smarter about how we design them, learn from what we've seen in the last Volvo Ocean Race in the shapes and how they were using the boats, and try and model this. We have the experience with the IMOCA, but we must keep in mind that they're currently singlehanded boats and we have to try and anticipate how a crew is going to use the boats and sails. Having won the last two editions of Vendee Globe and the Volvo Ocean Race we are in a unique position to combine this expertise.

I'm pretty sure we're going to end up with a very different sail plan as the way you sail a boat fully crewed (although only a crew of five is being discussed right now) compared to how you sail it singlehanded is completely different. Also, the Vendee Globe is non-stop, so you can't afford for the boat or sails to break whereas the Volvo Ocean Race has several stops so you can take more risks. With the move away from one-design, will we inevitably see more failure rates?

Gautier: We hope not! It's our job to make sure we don't. From a sails perspective we've been pretty good at evaluating where the limit is and how light we can go. In the days of 3Di, I can't recall a major disaster with sails where a team was completely handicapped as they didn't have a sail to use anymore. The big difference is we don't design a sail to break, we design it to stretch; so to break a sail you really have to misuse it: flogging it to death or dragging it in the water.

Even when the teams broached in 40 knots in the last Volvo Ocean Race they came back and the sailors have told us that they were amazed that the sails were still intact. Bouwe Bekking told us he had three reefs and a fractional zero up and they saw 67 knots on the wind gear before the sensor flew off the mast, which shows you the level they were pushing at. The Volvo Ocean Race and how the sails have stood up to it is a testament to 3Di and its longevity. We are very much looking forward to seeing what North Sails will produce for the next edition of the race. Thank you very much for your time.

Gautier: No problem! It's great that the trickle-down effect from the Volvo Ocean Race has now reached the cruising market with 3Di NORDAC. For the first time we have a product for cruising yachts which is directly derived from what we've learnt from the race. It's pretty amazing and exciting for us.

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