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The armchair navigator - imagining life at sea in The Ocean Race

by David Schmidt 31 Jan 08:00 PST January 31, 2023
Malizia - Seaexplorer - The Ocean Race © Antoine Auriol / Team Malizia

As the 2023 edition of The Ocean Race fleets tears up the offshore miles separating Cabo Verde from Cape Town, South Africa, I'll admit that I often find myself daydreaming about what it would be like to foil (or semi-foil) across a wide swath of big blue. Granted, things are fairly slow here in Bellingham, Washington, in late January, so there's plenty of time to ponder crewed life aboard an IMOCA 60.

As a point of contrast, I'm currently reading The Long Way, by Bernard Moitessier, about his adventures in the Southern Ocean aboard Joshua during the 1968-1969 Golden Globe Race (which he likely would have won, had he not entered into a private bargain with Joshua). Likewise, I find myself daydreaming about what Moitessier must have experienced, all alone, sextant in hand, far from the reach of safety.

There's plenty of risk involved in both ventures, of course, however the two imagined experiences are light years apart.

Granted, this all exists in my imagination, but it's fun to drift off to sleep, picturing myself commanding a boat much like Joshua. Sure, I'm alone, and the wind, stars, and sea are vast, but there's a certain sense of snugness aboard. The cabin smells like coffee (espresso, in my case), and while Moitessier enjoyed hand-rolling cigarettes, I find myself instead reaching for my stash of dark chocolate.

Point being, my imagined Joshua provides a point of respite in an otherwise unforgiving environ, albeit at a pedestrian pace of a few knots per hour. [N.B. for re-enacted historical perspective on this, aim your browser at the Golden Globe Race 2022, where the seven skippers who are still racing are realizing speeds - as of this writing - of 3.4 to 5.1 knots.]

I'll admit that speeds that slow might encourage me to take up smoking. Anything to move time along. Yet, reading The Long Way, it's clear that Moitessier was enjoying darn close to every second of his adventure. Speed wasn't his aim, as evidenced by his habit of heaving-to and catching sleep when things got really snarly.

Jumping imaginary vessels to an IMOCA 60 is perhaps an even bigger leap than time-traveling from 1968 to 2023. Forget Joshua's steel hull and telephone-pole like spars; my imaginary steed is built from carbon fiber, sports powerful boat-lifting hydrofoils, and has more sail area than would be manageable, save for the boat's canting keel.

And that's to say nothing of its enclosed cockpit.

To be fair, I'm fairly tall, about 6'1", and my house has high ceilings. I've always appreciated the feeling of having plenty of overhead (if you've ever taken a boom to the head, you know what I'm pointing at), and this is a hard circle to square within the IMOCA 60 fleet. Some of these bespoke designs seem to have more standing space than others, but my back starts hurting just thinking about trying to live hunched over, while also spinning the grinding handles (that body positioning might actually create slightly more headroom for the sailors) and avoiding pitch-poling my forehead into the closest stringer.

Then there are the touchdowns. Since the IMOCAs are not technically full foilers, they tend to sail with a bow-up attitude until the boat outruns its apparent wind, or until the driver (read: autopilot) gets out of phase with things. Then, the bow's undercarriage gets wet.

I can only imagine that these sudden "attitude adjustments" create a powerful isometric workout for the crews.

And there's always the danger of mal de mer. Here, I have no choice but to admit a historical chink in my offshore armor: When I was younger, I was no stranger to the leeward rail when things got snotty. Thankfully, I joined "Team Stugeron" decades ago, and, for me, this makes a massive difference, but I'm not sure that even this (metaphorical) Kevlar vest could withstand a few tough days inside one of those carbon-fiber caves, the boat's bow (mostly) generally jutting skyward, with no horizontal reference or even wind in the face to help restore the one's equilibrium.

Finally, there's the matter of living space. Moitessier had all 40 feet of Joshua to call home, while the IMOCA teams are racing with four sailors and a media person aboard a boat that includes crash bulkheads (read: greatly reduced living space). That's five souls in a class of yacht originally designed for the singlehanded Vendee Globe Race.

The saving grace, of course, is speed: IMOCAs can haul the mail. The ride might be uncomfortable, but it's short-lived.

So, which would I chose as my steed to cross an ocean? Since we are trading solely in the realm of imagination (at least for now), I'll take my half right down the middle: Both.

Blasting across an ocean on an IMOCA would be amazing. I've been lucky enough to have sailed on them before as a journalist, granted older ones without lifting foils or enclosed cockpits, and they are powerful machines. Sure, there would be some lower back pain involved, but how cool would it be to foil across an ocean?

But, while I've always loved sailing fast, there's the human element. I have reason to doubt that the IMOCA teams spend much time brewing up great cups of coffee (let alone espresso), and I seriously doubt that there's much time to contemplate the stars and one's place in the universe when packed into an IMOCA 60's cramped cockpit.

Fortunately for me, in my present role as an armchair navigator, I can envision myself aboard either yacht as I drift off at night. Sometimes the air smells like Moitessier's hand-rolled smokes and fresh-brewed Joe; other-times, it's the smell of freeze-dried food and hydraulic oil.

The one constant? Dark chocolate.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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