Accelerated learning

This Volvo Ocean Race was the wildest and windiest edition since 2005/6. Gautier Sergent, lead designer at North Sails, headed the team that crafted each team’s sail armoury that were deployed with an intensity equivalent to a decade of normal use. As Sergent explains, is that the benefits of race-bred technology will soon be available to all of us.

Written by Scott Alle

11 September 2018


What did the analysis of this edition of the race tell you?

We had a debrief with every single team in Newport to talk about the sails and services. The introduction of the new sail – the J0 masthead blade – was extremely well received. It was also the sail used to break the 24-hour record (602.51 nautical miles by Team AkzoNobel), among other things.

It is always nice to see results like this because we had to do a lot of modelling of FSI (Fluid Structure Interaction) and VPP (Velocity Production Program) routing to make sure this sail would actually bring something to the inventory.

Extra sails add weight to the boat – and the sail budget – so a new addition has to have a noticeable impact. This modelling work was presented to and approved by Volvo Ocean Race officials.

The A3 (big downwind gennaker) wasn’t really used offshore. The teams worked out a different set up with the MH0 and J2 + J3 as staysails, sailing tighter angles as they were going to the next pressure or wind shift.


This was a surprise, but we learnt a lot from it, and from talking to the sailors and going back to our model to see that we were capturing this. When top sailors match race around the world for nine months, you know they will squeeze every tenth of a knot out of the boat – as we saw.

The truth is on the water, so it’s important for us to close this loop and feed it back into our numerical tools.

This meant that the MH0 saw a lot of hours; in excess of a thousand. This was more than we anticipated, but they finished in good shape, as we saw coming into The Hague at the end.

All other sails were updated to fit the introduction of the J0. It proved a really positive change.

What materials were used for the 2017/18 Volvo Ocean Race sails?

Different products were developed depending on the intended use of the sail.

RAW 760 was used for the flat sails (main, J3, J2, J1, J0 and MH0). RAW is our most optimised product in terms of weight to shape-holding ratio. It is an evolution from the last edition that used our Endurance product.

Invented during the America’s Cup in 2013, RAW has matured and met with success in many offshore races like the Vendée Globe, the Jules Vernes Trophy, the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race and the Transpacific Yacht Race. One Design has never meant heavy or conservative to us.

A mix of aramid and Ultra PE (dyneema), RAW is lightweight. It is our proven offshore material and has been constantly refined by changing ratios and combinations, depending on the application and specifications.

Made with a high Ultra PE content for best weight to strength ratio, 3Di DOWNWIND was used for the running sails (FR0 and A3). The sail structure (fibre density and orientation) reflects the fact that the application is more luff loaded (high luff loads and lower leech loads for downwind sails).

What components of the technology/innovation could filter down to club racing or cruisers?

For the first time, cruising sailors can now use the same technology (3Di Nordac) on their boats as were used in the VOR. Essentially, it’s the same technology, it just uses a different fibre. So the lessons we learn about 3Di now translate directly into our cruising product.

In addition, most sails are furling, which means they can be applied to cruising, both in terms of shape and handling. They also encounter similar dynamic loads when furling, which is something we can’t model on a computer. In a similar manner, when pushed over the range, the sails tend to flap in the upper leech etc, which is often seen on cruising boats too.

Exploring new sail configurations, for example with staysails, will also help anyone sailing a boat. Whether you want to go faster or you want to sail downwind with a flat sail (no spinnaker cruising is always desirable), this will be helpful.

All in all, finding new ways to extend the range of the sails or their combination is helping both the cruising sailor and club racer. Less is more.

How has being involved with the VOR influenced your approach to sail design?

The process and approach are the same as any other sail design. You have a client, a budget, a time frame, an application and some specifications. You have to balance everything. VOR can push all of these elements like nothing else can.

As mentioned, the VOR is an accelerator, a magnifier in terms of design, manufacture and use, but also the all-important feedback.

Seeing how the sails age is fascinating. The boats all have the same sails and sail the same course at the same time, yet the sails don’t all look the same at the end of each leg. Sometimes because of handling error, sometimes because of a deliberate decision to push hard and make a break; it’s all part of the team’s strategy. They all push at different times in the race – and this shows in the sails.

Because you have a bigger sample size than usual and because the sails are being pushed hard, you learn a lot about sail ageing, various features of the sail structures and how each fibre behaves. All this feeds back to our test lab in the form of various tests, testing machines and also back to our numerical tools and where we need to take them to get our models closer to reality.

This all makes better sails out of the bag, which impacts every single customer of ours. It also feeds into our research and development division too.

This is my fifth VOR. They have all been different and with their own challenges because the race changes, the teams are different and I change too. Second time around with the same boat brought different challenges again.

At the end of the day, you set the bar and push yourself to improve. The day I stop learning I will quit my job; or I am already dead.  

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