Everything in ocean racing is big—the sky, the sea, the mast, the sails, the hull, the length of the course.
So, of course, it's the small things that matter when you're looking for a technological advantage. Although catastrophic breakdowns such as dismastings, hull failures, and capsizes occur from time to time at sea, small design elements far more often drive success—or failure—in off-shore events such as the Transat.
Rich Wilson, skipper of the trimaran Great American II (GAII), attributed much of his successful second place finish in the 50-ft multi-hull class Transat race to a $0.29 buzzer acquired from Radio Shack. Louder than the alarms installed in the numerous pieces of electronics on board, the buzzer repeatedly alerted him to various conditions along the 2,800-mile Plymouth, UK-to-Plymouth, MA course, ranging from undesired course and speed changes to the approach of other vessels.
Designed to warn the vigilant sailor, the factory alarms proved no match for the fatigue of 36 hrs of sleep deprivation. Even the buzzer workaround, however, couldn't solve a design flaw in the radar software tasked with providing notification of the aforementioned vessel approach.
A ship coming within a preset distance—in GAII's case, 10 miles—triggers an alarm (and, of course, the buzzer!). A tap of a button silences the alarm. Unfortunately, as long as the first target remains within the 10 mile radius, entry of a second vessel does not register a second alarm. Score: anxiety 1, peace of mind 0.
Among its various communications systems, GAII features Motorola's Iridium satellite phone service. Prior to the start of the Transat, GAII's Iridium voice and data transmissions faltered. By process of elimination, Wilson found the antenna to be at fault. Despite being designed for marine conditions, it succumbed to water damage. As with the buzzer, a relatively simple solution—epoxy encasement of the antenna—solved a complex problem.
GAII isn't just about design problems, however. Her four-component electrical power system weaves diesel, solar, wind, and battery technology into a unified whole. Each of the three sources has a significant limitation; together, they provide uninterrupted power most importantly for the autopilot and radar.
Besides being heavy, fuel for the diesel is limited and reserved for emergencies. Solar power requires not just daylight hours but direct sunlight. Wind power works best on upwind legs (such as the Transat). GAII's brand new absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries draw charge from any and all of these sources.
Unlike the high-tech, state-of-the-art entrants in the Transat's 60-ft multi-hull class, the 50-footers are, Wilson says, "Simpler than you think." In fact, until the Transat, we'd "really never broken any equipment aboard GAII," he wrote in his June 1 log entry just a day after the race's start on May 31.
What a difference a day made.
Following a change to the sail configuration a few hours after Anna Kournikova had fired the starting gun, he writes, "GAII leapt out of the water and took off at 15 knots. We bounced off a wave when BOOM! Suddenly the mainsail came crashing down the mast into a heap on the boom. I looked aloft with horror to see the main halyard broken at the top."
On a voyage before the Transat, Wilson had swapped out the Spectra halyard used to hoist the mainsail and replaced it with an alternate material. Motivated by a wish to reduce the small but undesirable stretch characteristic of the strong and UV-resistant Spectra, he'd taken another sailor's advice and replaced it. The alternative wasn't up to the mast-top turns and loads required of GAII's main halyard.
The repair presented a design challenge in its own right. Having broken at the top of the mast, the majority of the halyard had fallen down into and jammed in its hollow section, unable to be extracted through the exit plate on the mast. In Wilson's words, "Upon arrival at the dock at 8 p.m., I found a group of people: Lesley (my wife); Rick Williams (our boat manager); Brian Harris (a friend and former boat manager); his friend Laurent; and Josh Hall, an accomplished round-the-world single-hander.
"It was getting dark and raining. Over the next 11 hours everyone put in about 48 man-hours of work to sort out the problem. The solution was complicated and involved impact screw-drivers, grinders that sent sprays of sparks out from the mast, and lots and lots of work aloft. It was a heroic effort all around .… At 6:48 a.m., I left the dock, re-started the race at the breakwater at 7:22 a.m., and then took off in pursuit of my friends and competitors. I was 16 hours behind."
Clear View: The GAII's clear plastic canopy allows a 360-degree view of the boat and surrounding water from the cockpit.
That Wilson overtook all but one of his competitors speaks volumes of the 60,000 nautical miles he and GAII have traveled together since acquiring the then two-year old boat in 1989. He counts among his voyages three world speed records: San Francisco to Boston (1993), New York to Melbourne (2001), and Hong Kong to New York (2003).
Being one of three near-sister ships (the other two being CLM and fellow Transat competitor Nootka) allows for comparison of design features. One attribute where GAII stands apart is its Vistadome, a fully enclosed clear plastic canopy just forward of the cockpit and affording a 360-degree view of the boat, sails, and surrounding water. In an endurance-testing single-handed passage stretching a sailor to his or her limits, the ability to stay protected from the wind and cold for even a few additional minutes may well mean the difference between sound decision-making and disastrous error.
Asked the perhaps too-obvious question about the challenge of sailing such a long distance alone, Wilson replied, "Solitude is different than loneliness." Besides, through the efforts of his well-designed and well-executed site, ALIVE Foundation (www.sitesalive.com), he's never truly alone at sea.
Throughout the Transat, in the form of his ship's log, Q&A sessions, and expert essays delivered via email, phone, and the Web, Wilson remained in constant communication with classrooms around the world. As its website expands, the foundation enhances K-12 education by delivering "real world, real-time, global content" through the application of technology. Subjects such as weather, navigation, mechanics, health, and even design that may come across as dry in traditional textbooks instead "come alive when used in the real world by real people and with real consequence."
Over the course of his many voyages, Wilson has worked to bridge the digital divide and educate a following of hundreds of thousands of children. Of course, it's the small things that matter.
|To read a Design News article about the design of another Transat competitor, Yves Parlier's Aquitaine, go to http:rbi.ims.ca/3854-525