A Piratey Puzzle

Today has been an interesting as well as frustrating day on the Black Pearl. We are sailing parallel to the Argentinean coast in a drag race with our competitors who are all within 50 miles of us. We are reaching with the wind from the north west all heading the same course as we speed for the next weather obstacle in our path to Rio, a ridge of high pressure that we will negotiate on Sunday.

As all the boats are heading in the same direction with similar wind speeds and angles it is a good time to assess our boats performance in these conditions. We have not been able to do much of this on the Pearl so far so we are learning a lot but some of the lessons are harsh. Our guide to performance as the boats are not in sight of each other is the data we glean from the six hourly sked or position reports on how the other boats have gone- we have been taking a few hits in mileage losses as we try out sail combinations to see what gives us our best speeds and sweet spots with each sail. As these boats are so fast the difference in being well set up with the right sail can be measured in whole knots which can translate to miles in a 6 hour period. This is a non stop around the clock activity – as the pirates are working hard on deck trimming and tweaking theses massive sail aerofoil’s for each gust of wind below decks we are also analyzing the data we record on board to deduce what set up works and what does not. We compare this with our previous performance data and relative gains and losses on the fleet to make our judgments. This is a scientific process in that we apply some sophisticated software and measuring tools but becomes a more holistic affair when we add in the many variables we cannot measure. There are rarely clear cut answers just degrees of fast and slow. We note down what we think increases performance sail by sail. Everyone has an opinion so there are some interesting discussions. The sail chart which is the quick guide or map to our sail selection started as a theoretical neat and ordered color coded sheet but now looks like something Jackson Pollock would be proud of. The blue coded sail has been making gains in areas we did not first envisage and light green is proving itself to be a costly item with a very small range.

We cannot just change sails as you would on a small keelboat to test them, we are 10 pirates who have been at this for 2 weeks now so you can’t just call a sail change every few minutes because the one you have up is not quite right. Changing sails is hard work an also costs miles. The reaching sails weigh 100 kilos when wet on the rail so take some manhandling. It is no coincidence we refer to ourselves as ‘dung beetles’ as we roll and push these things around. When not flying these sails fulfill a vital role in helping trim the boat fore and aft which is another one of the many elements to setting up one of these complex beasts to be fast. Each sail change takes about 20 minutes to set the new one and drop the old one and needs the 4 on watch and ideally the 2 guys coming off or on plus skipper or navigator to do efficiently.

The day ends a bit better than it began with a small part of the sail crossover puzzle solved on this vessel and a few miles gained rather than lost to our competitors. The process will roll on through the night as subtle changes in wind, waves and angle will open up more of the conundrum to making this machine go fast.

Jules Salter