For most sailors competing in The Ocean Race (formerly the Volvo Ocean Race) keeping their mind and bodies intact as they race point-to-point around the world for eight gruelling months is a big enough challenge to deal with.
However for one crew member on each boat – the boat captain – in addition to their regular sailing responsibilities – helming, trimming, stacking the boat after manoeuvres etc. – they are also responsible for making sure the boat and its equipment is also kept in optimum condition all the way around the world.
British sailor Abby Ehler was boat captain aboard third placed Team Brunel in the 2017-18 edition. She describes the boat captain role like this:
“Most people can relate to the role of a Formula 1 pit crew team – well, in a nutshell, the boat captain is the pit crew for the boat, except that you’re at sea and there is no pit lane and no container full of tools to pick from.
“That means the planning and preparation you put in prior to going to sea, and the routine inspections and ongoing maintenance you carry out while you are out there racing are key to your ability to keep the boat functioning as close to 100 per cent as it can be.
“Plus the ability to solve problems and to be able to fix breakages as they arise are integral to the role of a racing boat captain.”
It would be easy to think of the boat captain as being responsible for the boat when it is at sea and the technical shore crew being responsible for it when it’s ashore. But, as Danish sailor Nicolai Sehested – boat captain with team AkzoNobel in the 2017-18 race – explains, in reality the relationship between the boat captain and the shore crew needs to be much more symbiotic.
“It’s very important to have a good relationship between the sailing team and shore team,” Sehested said. “As a boat captain you need to keep the shore team manager in the loop as much as possible while you are out at sea racing, so that he/she can prepare the upcoming service period in the best possible way for when the team arrives.
“You can also call on their experience in case of a major breakage where you can ask for extra technical support via the satellite-phone.”
When the boat arrives at the dock at the end of an ocean leg the first people to greet the boat are the shore crew who pile aboard even before the sailing crew have left for a well-earned adult beverage and some fresh cooked food.
Although the boat might be tied to the dock or even hauled out and stripped down to its component parts, the racing never stops and now it is the shore crew who are working against the clock to have the boat repaired and back up to 100 per cent when the stopover service period ends.
Theoretically at least, the boat captain is enjoying some much-needed down time with the rest of the crew as this work goes on. In reality though most boat captains will find themselves down in the technical area during their time off, making sure they understand what work is being done and giving their input when necessary.
“As part of the sailing team the boat captain needs time to recover and recuperate before the next leg of the race,” explains Ehler. “That said, you can’t expect to just step on come leg start day and off you go!
“It’s imperative to understand the maintenance work that has (and hasn’t) been carried out, to know about any problems or breakages that were found when equipment was serviced, and be aware of any parts that have been replaced.
“You must know your boat inside out and to do that requires working closely with the shore team as they progress through the routine and non-routine maintenance schedule. Surprises are not your friend at sea – unless it’s in the form of a hidden cache of chocolate or sweets!”
So how just how much extra work does a boat captain take on in addition to their normal sailing duties?
According to Nicolai Sehested, that very much depends on the weather you encounter along the way.
“Often in the strong winds where the boat is going fast making repairs – unless they are critical – is not practical as there is too much water on deck and the motion of the boat makes things too difficult. So then it’s more often about checking everything during each of your off-watch and then taking action to repair things when the team hits lighter winds.
“The boat check has to happen each off-watch – so that three times a day – and takes between 10 to 20 minutes. How much work there is depends the conditions, but normally an average on one or two hours a day is standard.
“Generally the rest of the sailing team are very good about helping repair stuff. Each crew member also ‘owns’ their own area of responsibility, so you are never stuck on your own with the problem, as you can always ask for help. In my experience that’s often the help you need to come up with a smart and quick solution.”
Meanwhile Ehler counts herself lucky that the two hours of maintenance work she spent each day while racing was spread over her four on watch periods.
“The time you have to spend depends on a few things,” she said. “On the set up within the team, how many other skilled members can assist with routine maintenance, how skilled the crew are to enable you to carry out the checks whilst still ‘on watch’, and ultimately the sailing conditions you encounter. I would generally spend two hours per day, on carrying out additional checks around the boat.
“I was lucky to be able to do the majority of this while on watch, so I didn’t miss out on my down time and could pair the checks along with cooking duties to make the best use of my time below deck.”
Being in a state of tiredness – or even exhaustion at times – is not conducive to good decision making and attention to detail, a factor both Ehler and Sehested were well aware of as seasoned ocean racing campaigners. Between them they advocate for rigorous pre-planning before you put to sea, along with a comprehensive knowledge of the boat inside and out.
“I would always work to a check list that was prepared before leaving, so even when you are massively sleep deprived and brain function is not at 100 per cent the list will keep you on track,” said Ehler.
“The job does become a lot easier with experience and time on the boat, said Sehested. “The more time you spend aboard the boat the more you understand how things work and instinctively appreciate the stuff that can go wrong.
“For me, it comes down to knowing the boat inside out so that you know what to look for in specific conditions. I have done two around-the-world races as a boat captain on a VO65 and that helps a lot in knowing what breaks and when.
Carrying out a boat check when it is really windy is a bit like trying to check the horse shoes on a bucking Broncho while you are dangling from the saddle – and just as dangerous if you don’t take precautions.
“Big waves always means a bigger check to make sure all nuts and bolts are still in the right place, said Sehested. “I normally work from the back of the boat to the front and it can be pretty precarious down below when you are crawling into spaces to do checks. I always let the driver know before I go to the bow in case I hit my head in a bad wave deceleration.
“The driver knows that if I’m not back in 10 minutes, someone should come check on me.”
Modern day ocean racing boats are highly-complex with lots of possibilities for breakdowns. But what are the most worrying parts of the boat for our two boat captains? The ones that keep them awake in their bunks no matter how tired they get?
“I would say top line focus has to be on the show stopper elements, primarily the rig and canting keel system on the VO65,” says Ehler. “And as with anything, prevention is better than cure, so ensuring everything is checked regularly and monitoring loads to minimise breakages is going to be what gets you to the finish line.
“As the old saying goes: to finish first, first you have to finish!”
According to Sehested virtually every fitting and system on a modern offshore boat is very important and hard to race properly without.
“But for sure some areas are very crucial in keeping the boat going. Engine and batteries are impossible to race without for very long – and the same goes with the hydraulics. Most of the time you see most issues with the systems you use the most and therefore push the hardest. Winches and pedestals are also a key area to keep focused on.
So does being a boat captain require you to be able to fix everything on the boat – or just to have a working knowledge of each element of the boat?
“Being a boat captain doesn’t mean I should be able to fix everything, but it does mean I have to look for the problems all the time so we can take care of them,” Sehested answers.
“A lot of the time time other sailors onboard have a better knowledge of certain area, and in that case my job is just to make sure they know about the problem and provide them the tools they need to carry out their work.
“If none of us onboard can fix the problem, my job is to call for assistance on shore, and then carry out the work together with the rest of the crew. I’m never left on my own to sort out problems, it’s always a team effort. Ultimately though the boat captain is the one responsible for finding the issue and then taking care of it – with or without help.”
Ehler says that in an ideal world a boat captain would be able to fix everything and that there are highly skilled individuals out there who can do just that.
“Liz Wardley and Nick Dana spring to mind as good examples, however this is certainly not always the case. Each boat captain and each team will have a different modus operandi. For example, I made sure I had a really good overview of the yacht as a whole.
“I certainly don’t have the technical knowledge to fix everything, however when you take advantage of the combined skillset within the team, the info you can glean from the product manuals, and the motivation that comes from racing against the other teams, most times you’ll find a solution to fix any problem somehow!”
When asked what motivated each of them to take on the extra responsibility and workload of being boat captain, the pair had this to say:
“For me being boat captain onboard team AkzoNobel was a natural position to take, given the experience I gained in the same role in my first race with Vestas, said Sehested. “I like to think I was given the job because I don’t look the other way if there is a problem and I hope my teammates thinks I have my area 100 per cent under control.”
“I went for it because I really enjoy the boat captain role,” said Ehler. |I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a true performance sailor in the way that I can trim a sail or helm a boat in a way that gets the umpteenth percentage out of the yacht.
“I’m a practical person who seeks optimisation in the form of weight, organisation, planning and manoeuvres – that’s what I think I’m good at. I love planning and organisation, which is a huge part of the role when you are preparing for long legs at sea. I’m a perfectionist and not shy of hard work.
What advice do Ehler and Sehested have for anyone wanting to emulate their careers and one day take on the boat captain role in The Ocean Race? As well as being able to sail at a world class level, what other skills and knowledge do they need to equip themselves with?
“My advice would be to arm yourself with a sound knowledge of technical skills, things like hydraulics, boat building and rigging,” Ehler says.
“These are probably best acquired on the job, learning from an existing boat captain where the knowledge imparted is specific and supplemented by work experience, or training courses in each relevant industry.
“You’ll very often find the suppliers to the yachts are more than happy to spend time running you through their products and usage, whether this be winches, hydraulic systems or electronic systems. Take full advantage of those opportunities!”
“There is also a secondary set of skills that will help you become a good boat captain – such as communication, time management, delegation, and good attention to detail.”
For his part Sehested recommends focusing on your work ethic and attention to detail and then learning on the job.
“I think the most important skill is to work hard and always keep checking things,” he said.
“You need to be very systematic about your work, and never cut corners. Never be satisfied, because if you think something will be alright it almost certainly won’t be. You can’t ever afford to wait for the problem to arrive, you have to anticipate it before it appears and fix it before it becomes a massive problem.
“Of course, you need to have a good understanding of hardware, hydro, electronics etc. – but a lot of that you can learn as you go. And of course, remember that your boat captain role is only a part time job. Your full-time job is racing the boat fast and hard as possible.”