Excitement of Volvo hinges on new keels

New, lighter design speeds up yachts, causes problems, too

April 24, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON AND ANNIE LINSKEY | CANDUS THOMSON AND ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTERS

If poking a hole in the bottom of a boat is asking for trouble, organizers of the Volvo Ocean Race sent trouble an engraved invitation when they were planning the 2005-2006 event.

At the bottom of each of the sleek 70-foot racing machines is a rectangular hole about 7 feet by 6 feet.

Big enough to accommodate a 15-foot keel, which balances out the tremendous above-deck forces pushing on the massive sails. And big enough to let in a boatload of sea water, which has happened frequently on this around-the-world race.

To put some pizazz into the 32-year-old global race, Volvo scrapped a tried-and-true design and ordered up boats capable of blistering speeds never seen in single-hull racers.

To save weight, the new design called for a "canting keel," a fin and lead bulb weighing 5.6 tons that moves from side to side to provide stability while under way. The hinged keel replaced water ballast, a less responsive system that required large electric-driven pumps to move the water sideways. To operate the canting keel, a crew member pushes one of two buttons for the direction the keel is to swing.

The French first used the system on 60-foot yachts in the Vendee Globe and Around Alone global races. Soon, other sailors followed, installing canting keels on racing catamarans.

So, though not new, the canting keel was nonetheless a work in progress on the new generation of Volvo boats.

But Volvo's strategy of reinventing its race worked. Leading up to the start last fall, the keels were the talk of the nautical world. Unlike America's Cup boats, which keep their keels under wraps, Volvo competitors welcomed close inspection on land and during tests.

Once the race began in Vigo, Spain, on Nov. 12, the 24-hour world speed record for single-hulled boats fell like acorns in autumn: 546 miles, 558 miles and finally the Dutch boat, ABN Amro Two, set and kept the mark with a distance of 563 nautical miles, or an average speed of 23.3 knots.

"The speeds are very fast - like a powerboat," said Ben Wright, the technical project manager for the ABN Amro team. In Spain, before the race began, Dan Nott of Britain did flips off the waves as he was towed on a wakeboard behind ABN Amro Two.

But all that speed comes at a price.

During the first three legs of the race, in some of the most treacherous waters in the world with little chance of rescue, the boats began to spring leaks through the trap doors covering the gaping hole.

Within 24 hours of the starting gun, the U.S. entry, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Movistar of Spain, had to quit the race and make for port because of keel malfunctions. Experts, including Farr Yacht Design of Annapolis, which drew the plans for both boats, raced to the scene to assess the problem.

Both boats had to be shipped from Portugal to Cape Town, South Africa, for the start of the second leg.

The international sailing media howled, forcing organizers to hold a meeting of skippers and crews for an unprecedented "vote of confidence" that was quickly publicized.

"Everyone called for a more exciting boat - both the public and the sailors - and guess what, we got it," said ABN Amro One skipper Mike Sanderson. "The safety of everyone is at the top of the list, no matter how you look at it. Every Volvo 70 that has had a problem so far since the first boat was launched in January [2005] has got back in to port without assistance."

Farr president Russell Bowler conceded to The Daily Telegraph of London that the keel door problems affecting Movistar and Pirates of the Caribbean had been "humiliating," but promised improvements.

Yet the next leg to Melbourne, Australia, was no better.

Having already dealt with an uncontrollable keel on the maiden leg, Ericsson Racing Team was forced from the race when the same problem cropped up again.

But the worst was yet to come. Near the bottom of the world below the tip of South America, Movistar lost a portion of its keel covering and began taking on water. The crew raced for survival suits as skipper Bouwe Bekking radioed for help. The only thing that kept the boat afloat was when a crew member dived into the water below deck and braved the threat of electrocution to emergency-wire the pumps.

"The first thing I thought was `Am I going to see my wife again?'" said Peter Doriean, a crew member on Movistar, in an interview taped by the Volvo Ocean Race immediately after the boat limped in to Ushuaia, Patagonia, for emergency repairs. Doriean didn't finish the leg, instead flying home to Perth, Australia, to see his family before rejoining the race in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In an interview last week, Bowler reflected on the problems shared by the boats designed by his company.

"I think we have received more than our fair share [of flak]," he said. "But, on the other side, the boats have had some problems, so we couldn't expect none."

Bowler said his firm won't back away from the canting keel, but he said the next generation of boats will be designed differently. "Certainly there are some things we've learned," he said.

Most of the Volvo sailors aren't shying away, either.

"We're breaking ground every day. It's just all new stuff," said George Peet, 26, of Michigan, trimmer aboard ABN Amro Two, which set the 24-hour world record.

"Some people may say it's put a bad twist on the race. Some people may say it's put a dramatic twist on the race," Peet said. "Personally, I feel it's the next level of ocean racing. We've really stepped up the game to where it's like a Formula One [auto racing] event."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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