Saturday, 15 January 2011

BWR: The Story of HUGO BOSS in the Barcelona World Race

Part One: Stormy, White-Out Conditions...

Andy and Wouter wave goodbye at the start of the Barcelona World Race. Image copyright Barcelona World Race.

by Anne Hinton

HUGO BOSS left the UK for Barcelona in December in a snow storm, heading downwind. Entirely unusual conditions, but good preparation for the tough racing in the Southern Ocean that lies ahead, it could be said.

However, long before the Southern Ocean, Alex Thomson Racing’s entry in the Barcelona World Race has continued to have unexpected circumstances and hard times to overcome, with Alex Thomson (GBR) having an emergency appendectomy just three days before the start of the race. Wouter Verbraak (NED) replaced Thomson on board HUGO BOSS, joining New Zealander Andy Meiklejohn as co-skipper. Meiklejohn commented that Thomson was his best friend, but he and Verbraak have known each other many years and always have a good laugh when they meet up, according to their wives.

Andy Meiklejohn and Alex Thomson, on arrival in Barcelona on board HUGO BOSS. Image copyright Barcelona World Race.

Verbraak had plans to go into IMOCA 60 racing, but was nothing like as experienced as Thomson and Meiklejohn with HUGO BOSS prior to setting off on the Barcelona World Race on 31st December. Through planning and training for the Barcelona World Race, Thomson and Meiklejohn had got to know each other well as both people and as double-handed sailors on the IMOCA 60, but this relationship was not established with Verbraak.

Meiklejohn’s yachting background in New Zealand dates from youth sailing, winning national championships, skiff sailing (he sent a Tweet of encouragement from Hugo Boss in the Atlantic Ocean to the 12 foot skiff Interdominions in Sydney, in which his former skipper has been competing), the Louis Vuitton Trophy and, more recently, offshore, in teams, doing campaigns such as the Volvo Ocean Race 2005-6 on Brasil 1. Thomson is used to short-handed ocean racing, but Verbraak, like Meiklejohn, is more used to fully-crewed offshore racing. In other words, the learning curve for Wouter Verbraak on Hugo Boss must necessarily be a steep one, and his co-skipper, Meiklejohn, is also under pressure with the change of partner on board, and needing to pass on knowledge about the boat.

Preparations for the race on HUGO BOSS. Image copyright JMLiot/Barcelona World Race.

“The Barcelona World Race was a goal of mine, so I’m looking forward to this amazing opportunity to sail with long-time friend Andy Meiklejohn as Alex’s substitute,” said Verbraak.

“The HUGO BOSS yacht is great to sail and Andy and I complement each other well on board. The preparation for the race by the team has been amazing so we’re well equipped for the task ahead.”

Andy Meiklejohn, co-skipper, said: “It has been tough with Alex’s sudden illness, but having Wouter as the substitute skipper is the best possible solution to the situation. Having sailed together before we have a strong bond, which will help us overcome the initial challenge. We’re fully focused on the task ahead.”

Alex Thomson in hospital, after his appendectomy. Image copyright Barcelona World Race.

A second hitch, after the appendectomy, which had enabled Thomson, by chance, to be home for the birth of his son, Oscar, last week, came in the sad form of illness for the little chap. In consequence Verbraak is now on board Hugo Boss for the entire race with Meiklejohn. It is a pairing that one would expect to become stronger throughout the race, as Verbraak gets to know the boat, and they both establish a good working pattern on board.

Preparing HUGO BOSS for the Barcelona World Race. Image copyright JMLiot/ Barcelona World Race.

There have been some unexpected occurrences on board but, so far, at least, not the damage that has occurred to others in the IMOCA 60 fleet. Thomson was initially on a high protein and fibre diet after his operation, and would have needed to adjust to the freeze-dried high calorie dose sachets on the boat. Strangely the food on board is labelled in Norwegian – and, as Verbraak lives in Norway, he is able to translate for Meiklejohn to give him an idea of the forthcoming taste of his freeze-dried sachet! One wonders what would have happened if Thomson and Meiklejohn had been alone on board. A perpetual guessing game as to what one might be about to eat, in all probability!

Another unusual circumstance for a sailor racing around the world is that Verbraak has few of his own clothes with him, while Thomson’s are on board, as it was expected that there would be a change in personnel at the Cape Verde Islands. As this hasn’t happened, Verbraak is now wearing Thomson’s clothes. It is very fortunate that Thomson takes larger, rather than smaller, clothes sizes than Verbraak!

Hugo Boss had been due to make a stop in the Cape Verde islands to swap Verbraak for Thomson, but is now free to race as hard as possible around the world. Verbraak commented: “Physically we have to say that this boat is a handful. Having gone from crewed sailing it is a very different level of exhaustion that we are learning to experience. But mentally we have been in such limbo these last days that today it is a feeling of relief, and focus on catching up.”

Andy Meiklejohn. Image copyright Mark Lloyd/Lloyd Images.

‘Wouter the Router’ is a trained meteorologist. He is an accomplished sailor who has a very competitive attitude and team player approach. In the last Volvo Ocean Race, he assisted different teams on board for legs of the course around the world. Verbraak has a wealth of experience in both inshore and offshore racing. In addition to the Volvo Ocean Race, he has sailed in the America’s Cup, the Oryx Quest, and the Tour de France à la Voile, won the Admiral’s Cup, TP52 MedCup, Middle Sea Race, Cape Town to Bahia Race and the Sydney to Hobart, co-skippered the Elanders and Avant boats in the Volvo Baltic Race and he has also advised sailors on strategy and weather in the Vendée Globe, the Route du Rhum, the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Olympics.

As mentioned before, the main challenge for the pair is to get used to both each other and double-handed sailing, as their background is from a fully crewed environment. Verbraak has been making extensive notes to help them through this process and become used to double-handed sailing:

Wouter the Router’s Guide to Double-Handed Sailing (taken from his blog):

Wouter Verbraak (left) and Andy Meiklejohn. Image copyright Barcelona World Race.

Being well organised is a key factor for being able to race to the maximum..:

“1. When the fleet is leaving you behind, it is all down to helping each other out mentally to get over it, and move on. Like on crewed races, keeping a positive atmosphere is key. The difference is that in a crew of ten, there is always someone with a joke or cheerful anecdote. Here it is all down to yourself and your co-skipper to sort it out. I can say we have been very good at it so far! The mood is positive and pro-active. We are going to get these guys!

“2. The auto pilot is the most important item on the boat. Not being able to use it means you are hand steering for all of your watch, you can`t look after all the routine checks and systems, and most important you get exhausted and lose focus to make good decisions. The extremely light winds are a real challenge for the pilots, and basically we had to hand-steer for two days straight in the Mediterranean. Not good!

“3. Think efficiency with everything you do. Pulling a Code Zero 200 m2 upwind headsail in with four guys on the grinders is a good work out. Reduce the muscle power with two, and you certainly have your tongue on your knees after a tack! So: we are finding little tricks everywhere to reduce friction in the rope systems, pull the furling line instead of the sheet when unfurling, etc, etc, etc. It is a never ending game!

“4. Look after each other well; three meals a day, and as much sleep as you can manage to squeeze in, will keep you fit and focused. A cup of coffee for the other guy when he wakes up is magical!

“5. Deal with things straight away; messy cockpit with ropes everywhere? Not a problem now! Making a cup of tea is much more appealing, but postpone tidying up, and the next manoeuvre is a mess...”

For the record, Alex Thomson made a comparison between singlehanded and double handed sailing: "Double sailing is physically harder because you usually perform more manoeuvres. Solo sailing is more demanding psychologically. For example, when you change the sail by yourself you have to be really careful not to make any mistakes." The boat is driven harder in double-handed sailing. Thomson was second in the inaugural two-handed Barcelona World Race.

Life on board at present, as the fastest boat in the fleet, with over 14 knots boat speed, per Wouter Verbraak:

Wouter Verbraak. Image copyright Barcelona World Race.

“30 minutes of non-stop grinding, tailing and pulling ropes under the Niagra Falls. At the end of the session, with all sails properly trimmed, and you are heavily breathing hoping for a little break, there is no break. The cockpit is a spaghetti of rope, and we have to dig into it. Happy thoughts; we are living our dream, finish what you started, life is beautiful (somewhere, just not right now right here, no - ban that last nasty thought - we are faster). “Great change, Andy, you are awesome, good comms, and the right choice. You go and lay your head down; I had a good nap just before. I will clean this mess up.”

“You see, that is the thing with this race. A triathlon is over after eight hours; here it just never stops.

“Porridge is ready. Nice! Little break before looking at the important stuff: strategy and weather.

“Have a great day; we are living our dream out here!”

Start of the Barcelona World Race. Image copyright Barcelona World Race.

Andy Meiklejohn
Wouter Verbraak
Alex Thomson Racing
Barcelona World Race