Wednesday, 29 September 2010

VOR: Measuring Success

Measurement. Image copyright Volvo Ocean Race.

by Volvo Ocean Race media

New Volvo Ocean Race measurers were given a head-start on the race this month, with a week-long training session held in Alicante.

Shaun Ritson knows what to expect. He's been around the yard too many times not to. "I reckon I'll be on a collision course with all of them at some stage," he says. "Can't avoid that."

He's given up on predicting the outcomes to yacht races, having worked two editions of the Volvo Ocean Race and a further two America's Cups. Each time, he has seen good teams fail and weaker teams excel and he won't wager any of his salary on this race being any different. But he is sure that there will be lively discussions.

"It would be ambitious to expect anything else," he adds.

Shaun is the chief measurer, a man you won't see in many interviews or highlight reels. And yet, for the next year, his department will be one of the most powerful in the race. While designers and project managers scratch their heads, anxious how their dimensions and innovations will do in the real world, Shaun and his team will know exactly how the latest Volvo Open 70 rule has been interpreted by each of the teams.

Over the coming year he will learn the angles of sails, the rig configurations, the hull shapes and all the possible game-changing details in between. He will be one of the very few people with a full view of a complex picture, knowing all the secrets that team bosses generally guard with a fierce passion.

The learning process has been aided by a one-weekng training course where the new measurers and their chief were guided through the complications of a Volvo Open 70 in Alicante under the aegis of Race Director, Jack Lloyd.

"We were faced with the challenge of identifying and training new measurers," Lloyd said, "and as we had the asset in Alicante in the form of Pirates of the Caribbean, we were able to make use of it as a real platform for the measurers to train on."

And when approached by one of the teams whether they could observe the training, Lloyd allowed eight attendees from a variety of entered teams to shadow the measurers during the course. "The initiative has been a great success in creating a better understanding between the measurers and the teams," he commented.

Such an understanding could have untold benefits to race participants although according to past competitors, they worry as much about what their rivals have come up with as much as they do about meeting the Rule - perhaps more.

Measurement. Image copyright Volvo Ocean Race.

Campbell Field was the shore boss for Telefonica's two boats in the 2008-09 and spent a good share of his days concerned about what bright ideas his opponents might have come up with. "You spend a lot of time wondering if what you've done is better than what they've done. There's a lot of time between a project starting and the race beginning and you do wonder if someone else has done something really smart."

Since the inception of the Volvo Open 70, there have been numerous such brainwaves: the ABN AMRO ONE hull, Telefonica Blue's low windage mast. Then again, there was the Movistar keel, the Green Dragon keel. Some thoughts win races, others lose them.

It all comes down to numbers on spreadsheets and that's where the measurers come in. "Basically, we have a set list of parameters," Ritson adds. "There is a class rule which says your boat must comply with a number of quite complex measurements and our job is to ensure everyone does. If they measure, we give them a certificate that clears them as a Volvo Open 70 and they can go racing. If they don't, then we have a problem."

With that in mind, there are parameters for almost everything: keel weight, rig weight, appendage weight, sail measurements and geometry, hull weight, water displacement - there are maximums and minimums for almost all conceivable aspects of a boat (which can weigh a maximum of 14,500kg, in case you're wondering). They all must measure in accordance with Ritson's stipulations.

And that is where the arguments come in. "In the past there have been problems, people saying, ‘We didn't know you were going to measure it like that'," Ritson says. "This is a very complex process and there are plenty of ways of measuring a boat. And there are plenty of ways of measuring a boat that give you different results to what we consider acceptable.

"Our main focus for this race is clarity," Ritson adds. "This time the biggest change is trying to be more open, trying to educate the teams in how we intend to do it, encouraging them to do it our way before we get to do the official measurements. We want to avoid the arguments and nasty surprises. A classic example is you show up to measure a boat and you are there to look at mast position. You show up and measure it and you get a different number to what they have and you say, ‘Sorry mate, you're in the wrong spot'. Then his jaw drops and you get, ‘Raa, raa raa, you're doing it wrong'.

"It's amazing how differently everyone can read the same sentence in the rule book. This time we want to make it clear exactly how we want the boats to measure. We want to cut out the grey areas."

Core sampling. Image copyright Volvo Ocean Race.

It is hard to stop the imagination drifting to Alicante in 2008. Ericsson 3 was found to have a series of voids in their keel fin, a feature that went against the class rule's requirement for a "solid" fin. The team's legal adviser, Luis Saenz, said at the time that the team had repeatedly sought clarification from the measurers on what constituted "solid". Needless to say, they never agreed, Ericsson believing their design was innovative and the measurers insisting it breached the rules.

Ultimately Ericsson were told their keel did not comply and the team inserted steel rods into the voids, filling all but 625 grams of air, which on a boat weighing 14 tonnes was deemed to have no impact on performance. Nevertheless, the case went before an international jury - amid much huffing and puffing from other teams - and the keel fin was ruled illegal and Ericsson 3 were issued with a penalty of two points per leg, one per in-port race and one for every scoring gate they passed until the keel complied.

"That was not so fun for any of us," Ritson says.

Those arguments are unlikely to disappear. "It is in a designer's nature to push the envelope in terms of what can be achieved," Ritson adds. "They want to find areas in the rules which are open to interpretation and find a way to do something clever that will give them an advantage. Our job is to draw the line in accordance with the rules and stop those aspects that do not comply."

To do that, Ritson is in the process of selecting his assistants. He has taken over the role of chief measurer from James Dadd, who led a team comprising of Shaun and Nick Nicholson. Nicholson and Dadd will work with individual teams this time around, switching to "the dark side", as Ritson jokes. The new sheriff in town is currently recruiting and training deputies for the forthcoming race and his work load is about to increase.

"It's fairly quiet for us now but the fun will begin soon," he says. "I've already visited with one of the teams to discuss rig and sail measurement. Nothing too controversial as yet, just people wanting to get a handle on how we'll do things. I imagine there will be a few more as this ramps up."

Indeed, five new boats are expected to be built for the race, with hulls due to undergo construction on three of them in the next couple of weeks. As the race approaches, Ritson and his team will be flying to boat yards around the world to check that rigs, hulls, keels and all the minutiae are all measuring up. It will amount to at least four visits for each of the five new boats, starting in January and getting more frequent as the months pass.

"We'll have our work cut out," he says. "Hopefully, if the extra clarity does its job we'll have a straightforward task by the time they all get to Alicante. They should all know how we'll be measuring things, they'll have done it the right way themselves and there'll be no problems. Maybe a few will have been clever with a few interpretations and we'll make sure they fit within what's allowed. Hopefully it will all be peaceful. We'll see. There's always something to argue about."

He knows not to expect anything less.

Volvo Ocean Race