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An interview with Simon Fisher on the 2021 Transat Jacques Vabre and shorthanded sailing

by David Schmidt 3 Nov 2021 08:00 PDT November 7, 2021
Simon Fisher (GBR) and Justine Mettraux (SUI) will co-skipper 11th Hour Racing Team's 60-foot IMOCA Alaka'i in the Transat Jacques Vabre as a part of the Team's two-boat racing program in 2021 © Vincent Curutchet / 11th Hour Racing

When it comes to fully crewed sailing, The Ocean Race (nee, The Volvo Ocean Race and The Whitbread Race) stands alone as offshore racing's most competitive test. The course typically takes teams across all major oceans and around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, and the race is contested aboard high-performance boats that have tagged 40 knots of boatspeed and set impressive 24-hour distance records.

To navigate in this environment is to be part weatherperson, part tactician, part navigator, and part soothsayer. Simon Fisher (GBR), 43, has been in this role five times, starting with ABN AMRO TWO in the 2005-2006 VOR.

Next up was Telefonica Blue in the 2008-2009 VOR, then two laps and a race win with skipper Ian Walker's Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (2011-2012 and 2014-2015). Fisher's most recent circumnavigation was as navigator aboard skipper Charlie Enright's Vestas 11th Hour Racing during the 2017-2018 VOR.

Flash forward to the 2021 edition of Transat Jacques Vabre, which begins on November 7, and Fisher will be on the starting line with co-skipper Justine Mettraux (SUI) aboard 11th Hour Racing's Alaka'I, (nee Hugo Boss) the team's IMOCA 60 that they have used as part of their two-boat program leading up to the 2022 edition of The Ocean Race. Charlie Enright (USA) and co-skipper Pascal Bidégorry (FRA) will also be racing in this year's "TJV" aboard Malama, the team's brand-new IMOCA 60. It's believed to be the first time that a single team has simultaneously fielded two steeds for this historic transatlantic race.

I checked in with Fisher (GBR), via email, to learn more about his move from fully crewed sailing to double-handed sailing and his 2021 Transat Jacques Vabre campaign.

You've built a strong name for yourself as a VOR navigator—what motivated your move into shorthanded sailing?

I've always been tempted to get involved in some shorthanded sailing, the doublehanded format is something that has always really appealed to me. I've had aspirations of doing something like the Barcelona World Race or the Transat Jacques Vabre for some time now. However, the way things have worked out, the right opportunity to tempt me away from crewed sailing hadn't come along until now.

I'm incredibly grateful that 11th Hour Racing have allowed me to jump into doublehanded racing with a good team, a good boat and a good co-skipper in Justine! It's been a big challenge but tremendous fun figuring it all out.

What do you like more about shorthanded sailing versus fully crewed sailing?

I'm really enjoying the shorthanded sailing. It's been fun learning a new aspect of the sport and it is definitely something I can see myself doing more of in the future. I have always enjoyed the variety that sailing has to offer so the opportunity to do something a bit different this year and learn something new has been a welcome challenge.

I am someone who likes to do a bit of everything onboard but with crewed sailing you often get a bit pigeon-holed into a role. When you are sailing shorthanded that's definitely not the case, you actually need to be able to do every job onboard and this is something I really like.

I can't speak too much about single-handed sailing, and I think I'd take some convincing to sail one of these boats alone but to me doublehanded sailing strikes me as the best of both worlds. You get a lot of the fun and experience of singlehanded sailing, typically when straight-line sailing you are on deck alone managing the boat by yourself while your co-skipper is resting. But at the same time, you are still part of a team, have someone to work together with, help you when things get tough and also enjoy the fun times with you.

I imagine you can push the boat much harder two-up as often our performance in a straight line is very similar to when we are fully crewed. It's also good to know that you can get some proper rest, safe in the knowledge that while your eyes are closed there is someone on deck looking after everything and racing hard.

What aspects—if any—of fully crewed sailing do you find more rewarding than shorthanded sailing?

Shorthanded sailing is incredibly rewarding, especially on a personal level. And having just said I like the opportunity to get involved in everything, I guess the flip side of that is there just isn't the ability to really specialize in some areas like there is when you are working in a fully crewed environment and that is something I definitely miss.

I also really enjoy working as part of a bigger group and helping to be part of what makes for a good team dynamic within that group. Whilst it is not better or worse it is different. It probably goes to show variety really is the spice of life!

You're obviously dialed on navigation, but what are the areas where you've found yourself to be a bit behind the learning curve when it comes to double handed sailing? Or, in other words, what are some areas where you've had to up your sailing game?

Ironically, in all the races we have done this year, my starts have been terrible! I've spent most of my sailing career as a navigator making sure we get off the line well but I haven't quite managed to do it with myself on the helm!

A bit of this is driven by trying to be conservative and my lack of reps putting a 60-foot boat with foils and outriggers sticking out the side into tight situations and I still need to up my game there for sure! We're probably not going to win the Transat Jacques Vabre on the start line but starting strong definitely makes things a bit easier and that's all part of the game! Weaving through traffic twos-up isn't easy and not much fun at all!

Making your life easier is really at the crux of it all. Shorthanded sailing is pretty tough both physically and mentally and in the IMOCA fleet we are up against the best in the world at it! It's been quite a humbling experience with a very steep learning curve. I can't recall ever being so tired in a yacht race as I was about halfway the 48-hour race in the Défi Azimut. The pace of these races is absolutely relentless and with only two of you onboard there isn't really any other option but to keep on pushing!

This puts a real emphasis on good preparation, planning and decision making as mistakes are both costly in terms of time and energy. This means trying to do a better job than ever as a navigator whilst staying focused on sailing fast and maintaining oversight of the whole boat. I guess where I've needed to up my game the most is learning to give more in every area and for more of the time!

At any one moment you need to have you head across a whole range of things. You also need to be very disciplined and methodical. Justine's experience as a solo sailor has been invaluable in finding our rhythm onboard and striking the balance between shorthanded and fully crewed mode. That said, she's usually the one pushing me to move the stack that extra time or do the extra sail change so I've probably still got a way to go! When you are running on empty it becomes very much a mental game.

It is interesting to note that I really think that we have benefited from doing lots of sailing on our boat in fully crewed configuration. We sailed The Ocean Race Europe fully crewed before Justine and I inherited the boat for the doublehanded season. When sailing fully crewed on the IMOCA there are only five of you and this already requires you to be very 'all round' so it helped to smooth our transition to doublehanded. Our time spent sailing fully crewed has definitely fast-tracked our learning in many ways. Justine and I have developed our roles onboard quite organically off the back of this experience, something that I feel has worked very well in our case.

We've been able to get to know the boat really well and have developed a good understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. As a result, we are able to push it hard on the race course and the time we've done fully crewed has helped set the benchmark for performance. When it comes to maneuvers, we learnt all the steps in crewed configuration but then adapted to do everything with just the two of us. You just need to work a bit harder and be a bit more patient!

Realistically, what percentage of your time on the boat is devoted to navigation? Also, do you and Justine spilt your team's navigation duties evenly?

That's a good question. The navigator in me won't let me leave the computer alone for too long!

Luckily on Alaka'i the computer is located right there in the hatch so there is no need to leave the cockpit to check on things which if I'm honest I do a lot! However, while I'm alone on my watch I try to focus most of my energy on performance and sailing the boat fast, and then, once Justine is awake and back on deck, that is when I do most of the detailed work looking at the course and the weather.

I definitely spend a little less time navigating than when sailing fully crewed but not a lot less. It's still a yacht race and all the same problems exist so I try to do a detailed job as possible. It's probably a case of trying to do it all but in less time!

I actually did the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race in the watch system and it's the same when we race these boats fully crewed. All that experience has probably been good practice for this season. Sailing shorthanded you need to be a bit more disciplined with your time and energy and really try to identify what are the key areas of the race to focus on. There isn't the time to spend ages staring at the screen watching how things play out, but in many ways that's a good thing. It's much more fun to be busy sailing the boat than staring at the screen waiting for the next thing to happen!

In terms of how we split the navigation duties on board, I would say I still do the bulk of the navigating. It has worked out like this not only because it's what I normally do onboard but as a result of jumping straight from racing fully crewed to sailing doublehanded with our boat and developing our roles on board this way.

When we are both on deck, I tend to take responsibility for making sure we are headed in the right direction and Justine makes sure we are going there as quickly as possible and that seems to work well for us! That said Justine is also a good navigator and is very tactically minded. She always asks the right questions and is thinking about where we are on the course which is really important. I've no doubt she would do a good job in my absence.

What are your team's goals for this year's TJV?

There is no questioning that 11th Hour Racing Team had an ambitious program for the year putting two boats in the race for the Transat Jacques Vabre. I'm not sure that is something that has been done before in the IMOCA class and something that is very cool to be part of. We would obviously like to see both boats right up there in the results but we are racing in a very competitive fleet and lots of things need to come together for that to happen.

Certainly, for Justine and I, we would be thrilled with a podium result, with a third in the Rolex Fastnet Race and a second in the Défi Azimut, I think that is achievable but it we will need to sail our socks off to make it happen. The quality of the fleet is incredibly high and for most of the IMOCA teams, the Transat Jacques Vabre is the main focus of the season so it's inevitably a much bigger challenge compared to anything we've faced before.

For our racing this year we have always talked about not focusing too much on the result or the position we are in and just making sure we are always doing the best job that we can in terms of performance, strategy, tactics and maneuvers. All whilst trying to do the best job of looking after ourselves onboard! If we are able to do all of this well and minimize mistakes hopefully the result will take care of itself. So far that has worked well for us but I'm certainly not naïve to the fact that we could sail our best race and not make it onto the podium so we just need to get out there and give it our best shot and see how we go against the other boats.

On top of that the goal is always to have fun and enjoy the racing. It's been a great opportunity to have this boat for the season so we are keen to make the most of it!

In the last Vendee we saw the older boats with smaller foils doing better in some cases than the newest-generation IMOCA 60s. Obviously weather patterns played a role in this, but could you imagine a scenario where you and Justine beat Charlie and Pascal across the TJV's finishing line?

It is hard to speculate how the race is going to play out but I'd certainly never say never! It would actually be quite satisfying to see Charlie and Pascal absolutely smoke the rest of the fleet on pace as the boat they are sailing is the product of a tremendous amount of work from the whole team. As the newest boat in the fleet, I'm hoping it will set the benchmark in terms of performance as that will mean we've made some good decisions along the way and we are in a good position for The Ocean Race!

I'm not going to lie though; it would be really nice to beat them and Justine and I will be doing everything in our power to try and make that happen! Having an older boat is probably an advantage in some ways as it's a known quantity, we've spent a lot of time with it personally and it is also the product of seven years of development in two very good teams. Charlie and Pascal's boat is still very new and there is a lot we don't know about it yet both in terms of performance and reliability. Our preparation for the Transat Jacques Vabre has definitely been a lot more straightforward as we haven't had to figure out every aspect of a new boat.

It will be fun to see how it all works out. We will have to see how we stack up against the newer generation of boats in the VMG downwind trade wind sailing, in this race there is quite a lot of it. I'm anticipating the newer generation might have a bit of an advantage but all we can do it sail our boat in the best way we know how and hope that we also get some conditions that favor Alaka'i!

Is the TJV your last major offshore event before next year's TOR? Or, do you and Justine have a full season of racing ahead of TOR? Can you please give us an 8,000-meter view on what your next year of sailing (ahead of TOR) looks like?

Once the Transat Jacques Vabre has finished I'll be turning my attention back towards crewed racing and The Ocean Race. I'm looking forward to putting more time into sailing the new boat and its development. It's felt a bit weird seeing the boat launch and sail and not being able to be that hands on with it as we've been busy with our own boat so it will be nice to get back to that. This will start with getting the boat back across the Atlantic and back to Europe before the end of the year. We will then be able enjoy some well needed rest over the winter before coming back strong next year with a full program of crewed sailing which should involve a couple more Atlantic crossings.

Our boat Alaka'i will be going to a new owner and the majority of the IMOCA racing next year is singlehanded so it looks unlikely that Justine and I will get to any doublehanded stuff together in 2022, but, having really enjoyed it, I hope we get to do more together in the not too distant future whether in the IMOCA class or something completely different!

What kind of scientific experiments have you conducted offshore? Are we talking about water sampling? Also, will you be conducting any samples or tests during the TJV? Can you please paint this picture for us and also tell us what you've learned?

Having studied chemistry over 20 years ago now (and probably never really put my degree to use!), it has been really fun to get involved with the various science projects we have been doing onboard. It also feels great to be giving something back to the wider science community and providing a unique and valuable contribution to the various environmental datasets that are being used to measure climate change.

For some of our longer passages we have been running a continuous water sampler, which measures things like dissolved carbon dioxide, sea temperature and salinity together with the GPS position of the samples. This data is then post processed and integrated into the bigger data models run by organizations like NOAA, during our transatlantic training, and EuroSea, during The Ocean Race Europe.

The unique thing that we can do is provide information from locations where other vessels typically will not go, so from our 60-foot raceboat we can help provide a unique perspective. We have also been able to assist with the dropping of drifter buoys. This was of particular relevance whilst in the midst of the global pandemic when there were fewer ships sailing to assist with this process. We were able to work in real time in order to position the buoy in the best possible position as we sailed across the Atlantic to best fill any data gaps in the data. It was great to know that shortly after dropping the buoy in the ocean not only were we helping to deliver important data but this information was being used to improve the various weather models we use onboard so it really was a win-win situation!

Finally, we also try and provide eyes to the science community by reporting on things like the wildlife we see from onboard. Racing in places where it is impractical for research vessels to operate, we again can provide important data that wouldn't otherwise be available. The nice thing about this is that it doesn't provide any fancy equipment but we are making a difference all the same!

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