The Volvo Ocean Race recently passed through Auckland and walking through the city’s Viaduct Harbour got me thinking that a comparison between the race boats on one side of the marina and their superyacht neighbours on the opposite side just 50 metres away would be like comparing Formula One race cars to the Bentleys and Mercedes in the VIP car parks outside the track.
Both the race car and Volvo boat are designed, engineered and built solely to race around a specific course at optimum speed with a definite (short) lifespan factored in whereas the luxury cars and superyachts are built to take passengers or guests in comfort surrounded by luxury for an undefined lifespan.
Making a comparison like this shows that it is the differences that are easy to spot but, as with any comparison, it is the similarities that may not be visible to the untrained eye and this makes it interesting.
In the same way that the technology from automotive racing has trickled down from the engineering teams in Formula One racing to the family sedan (for example the disc brakes now adopted by all car manufacturers first appeared on racing cars in the 1950s) so the technology from extreme yacht racing has trickled down into mainstream sailing, and nowhere more so than for sailing in the superyacht industry.
The increasing popularity of ‘bucket’ style superyacht regattas has led to the stakes being raised amongst an elite set of large sail yacht owners choosing to optimise their yachts for regatta performance. The pedigree of yachts competing in these regattas is diverse ranging from carbon hulled, lightweight café racers to 500 tonne steel hulled motorsailors and, despite the fact that handicapping committees work tirelessly to even out the field and achieve the ultimate goal of a tight finish line battle in pursuit races, superyacht owners still strive to improve the performance of their vessel in what some may describe as an arms war.
The improvements that are being made on these and other non-competing yachts are in many cases derived from developments on board racing fleets, and the Volvo Ocean Race is one of the main opportunities for developing and testing equipment in extreme conditions.
In previous decades design cues for improving recreational sailing performance were taken from the Americas Cup. Fibre path laminated sails would be a clear example of this with the Australian 12 meter Americas Cup entry Southern Cross experimenting with fibres laminated onto film in the 1970’s which led on to the development of the laminated sails offered by the major sail making companies across all sailing sectors now.
Relevance to superyachts
But as the Americas Cup moved away from monohulls into multihulls, and then into foiling hulls with wing masts, the technology being developed has lost its relevance for the superyacht industry. The practicality of stepping and un-stepping a wing mast makes the technology irrelevant for superyachts and I think it will still be a long time until we see a superyacht skimming on foils.
The development void created by the divergent nature of Americas Cup development, irrelevant to the superyacht industry at least, has now been filled by the adoption of technology from the Volvo Ocean Race and nowhere is this more evident than above deck with sail and rig packages.
Volvo's impact on sail design
Burns Fallow, Head Sail Designer at North Sails describes how the Volvo rapidly accelerated the development of 3Di sails,
“In the 2005-6 Volvo the boats had three mainsails and a very large inventory of other sails to go around the world; in 2011-12 the wardrobe was reduced to 17 sails including two mainsails each; and now in the current race the boats are only allowed 11 sails which equates to one mainsail for the whole race. As North Sails was selected to supply the sails for all the boats in this one design race we had to make sure that the product was robust enough to take the punishment of being thrashed in a race around the globe.” North Sails accelerated the design and production of its 3Di product to be ready for the 2011-12 race, and happy with the results that they saw from this extreme testing, they introduced 3Di to the wider yachting market including, of course, superyachts.
The distinctive taffetas of 3Di sails are now seen on many superyachts around the world, whether racing in regattas or cruising in far flung destinations in the Pacific. North Sails markets its sails heavily on their Volvo Ocean Race pedigree arguing that if they are robust enough to survive some of the harshest sailing conditions in the world under race conditions, they are more than adequate for the conditions most superyachts will ever experience.
As well as the material used for making the sails, the style of sails used on superyachts is also now taking styling cues from the Volvo Ocean Race. Square top mainsails are starting to grace the skyline as sail designers seek to optimise sail area and provide that extra bit of drive from a mainsail.
Automation vs manpower
In the late nineties the superyacht trend towards minimising sail handling through automation led to classic brochure photo shoots with just one person visible on deck helming a 30 metre plus yacht while controlling a fully automated sail plan from a console at his fingertips. As the demand for racing performance has developed the reality of this image has diminished.
Twin headstays with reacher and blade, or even yankee and staysail combinations are starting to be replaced by a single headstay setup allowing the option of code zeros and a range of asymmetrics to be carried. Additional manpower is of course required on deck once again to use these sails, namely a race crew. As with the Volvo fleet, it is not unusual to see a superyacht crew using a code zero with a top down furler for fast and easy deployment.
When it comes to specifying masts, walking around Southern Spars' Auckland facility you don’t need to be a genealogist to see the links between the superyacht rigs currently in build and the Volvo boat rigs. Streamlining and the aerodynamics of the mast section and fittings are the most obvious visual clues and this is very evident on one of the rigs in build at the moment for the owner of a superyacht that has graced many regattas and always campaigned hard.
The mast’s rigging tangs have been recessed fully into the mast section to provide a smooth interface between the ECsix carbon strand rigging and the mast and even the end cap covers for sheave pins have been recessed into the mast to provide a totally flush finish. While this may seem like an insignificant build feature, in a carbon mast without filler the work required to maintain the structural integrity of the tube is certainly not insignificant when you look at the design calculations required and the compensatory internal laminating that needs to be undertaken.
Mast locks, once a scary piece of equipment that could result in your sails being stuck hoisted until they were blown to shreds or someone was brave enough to go up the mast and cut the halyard, are now becoming more mainstream aboard superyachts. Again Volvo racing development has helped this along requiring rig and hardware manufacturers to produce more robust, failure proof units that will work under the most testing conditions. As well as helping to maintain sail shape because of the decrease in halyard stretch, halyard locks give the added advantage that smaller diameter halyards can be used as the length of the halyard sees a lot less load when a lock is in place. Smaller diameter halyards allow captive winch drum lengths to decrease taking up less space onboard.
To complement the square top mainsails, rig builders are fitting backstay deflectors, again a trickle-down technology from the Volvo Race.
The sail/rig package for both Volvo boats and superyachts with a North/Southern Spars combination is developed using the Membrane Design Suite. This suite of programmes allows the sparmaker and sailmaker to work together to optimise design and engineering as a unified solution. The higher performance superyacht rigs coming out of Southern Spars in fact have a similar performance to the Volvo boats with respect to mast stiffness. Headstay sag percentages and the interface with the sailmaker means that sail shapes are matched to the characteristics of the rig.
Southern Spars ECsix standing rigging has been fitted to all boats in the current edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. ECsix rigging and other carbon standing rigging solutions are becoming the rule rather than the exception on sailing superyachts launched within the last few years. Undoubtedly it is the severe testing in this round the world race that has helped give owners the confidence to opt for carbon rigging aboard their superyachts.
Whether the financial cost of these racing upgrades on a superyacht is proportional to any increase in performance is not measurable, and the answer is probably as relevant as whether a Lamborghini would beat a Ferrari in a race during peak hour to Rooty Hill. There are too many variables to give a scientific result and, at the end of the day, hopefully both owners would have had great fun on the journey and would still have immense pride in their own choice of vehicle.
And let’s not forget the performance offsets from the marble in the ensuites and the granite in the galley that are often overlooked in the design process.
*Image credits: Jeff Brown & Volvo Images/Matt Knighton/Maria Muina/Amory Ross/Ricardo Pinto