Januari 27, 2010 @ 16:29:29   Foto Rick Tomlinson / Volvo Ocean Race


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It was blowing 18-24 knots with big rolling seas sliding across the region's immensely deep waters. During two hours of one-tack upwind sailing, the difference between the best of Volvo Open 70 generation one and the first of generation two rarely exceeded a few seconds. Downwind, the gains were bigger, but not overwhelming.

Several months before the start of the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race I had the privilege of helming the Ericsson Racing Team's trial-horse and winner of the preceding race, the former ABN AMRO ONE.

During a long upwind test off the Canary Islands we sailed against the first of the team's new boats, Ericsson 3, steered by skipper Torben Grael. Ericsson 3 was designer Juan Kouyoumdjian's first second generation Volvo Open 70 design and became the Nordic entry in the most recent edition of the race.

At the time of my visit, Ericsson 3 had been sailing for three months and the boat was, in Torben's words, "properly up to pace".

I found this remarkable. If the leading Volvo Open 70 designer was working with such small incremental gains after just three stages of his hull form, how much smaller would subsequent steps be? The answer came during the 2008-09 race itself, whenEricsson 3 frequently showed the excellent pace I saw that day off Islas Canarias.

There was another interesting lesson to take from Juan K's race-winning design evolution. Though Ericsson 4 outperformed her team-mate during the 2008-09 race, the boat was not a direct development of its predecessor. It was more targeted and less of an all-rounder, with gains chased in specific conditions.

These gains came at a price in other conditions, but, with the team's comprehensive understanding of the rule, the price was minimised - ultimately to devastating effect.

Why is this background important to the changes made in the latest Volvo Open 70 Rule? Simple. Great events need to be fed constantly with new entrants, and not all are able to secure the backing to step directly onto the podium at the first attempt.

Maximum use must be made of existing resources to bulk up these events and generate critical mass. Not every potential sponsor is ready to make the commitment to challenge for outright victory, but they are more likely to extend their initial investment if the first effort proves a relative success and offers a good return.

So the rule needed to find ways not only to curtail the budget required to win, but, perhaps more importantly, it needed to find ways to enable those new to the event to perform at a more satisfying level than in the past.

It has not always been the case in sailing, fortunately, that big budgets inevitably lead to big results. You only have to look at the America's Cup to see that. However, when giant budgets do prevail, it can be damaging.

This is especially so for those straddling what can be an uncomfortable middle ground; not enough investment to win but too much to call a 'taster' campaign.

Buy a good existing Volvo 70 today and teams can benefit from a lot more on-the water development than by waiting for a new boat for 2011-12. There may even be some small benefit in terms of the rule itself, although rule managers have been careful to avoid grandfathering features that could swing the balance too far the other way.

A good old boat should cost in the order of 2.5 million euros versus circa 6 million euros to build new - a huge saving that increases further when you add in savings in spares and support equipment that accompany a used purchase.

The increased minimum weight and a better division of structure and appendage weight will also allow such existing boats to benefit from some of the tweaks and improvements enjoyed by their lighter-built rivals last time and also to be stronger and more reliable on the race course.

Because of the rule changes, a well-sailed, good old boat will now certainly be capable of a top finish if not perhaps of an outright win. Then again, throw in a bit of good fortune ...

Personnel costs are a huge component of any round the world budget, but limits on two-boat testing will make inroads. And there are smaller gains; the change to all-furling headsails will make these daunting and powerful boats slightly less intimidating and may widen the crew pool.

Widen the pool and you manage another big cost. The praiseworthy increase to a requirement for three crew under-30 carries another bonus in this direction.

A classic competition needs great winners today and glimpses of great talent for tomorrow. The Notice of Race has followed this path and the results should be exciting.


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