The forecast was for moderate to light winds until we reached Cap Finisterre, North of Portugal, so it was our passage through the Bay of Biscay, where we were to expect a 35kt blast following a front sweeping in from the WSW, that I was most looking forward to. I had seen on You Tube, the footage of the ex-Pindar, Juan K designed IMOCA 60 ‘HUGO BOSS’ as it trucked past Lands End.
What I relished was to experience that onboard for myself.
With a delivery team of Alex Thomson and his Barcelona World Race co-skipper, Andy Meiklejohn; ex-boat Captain of Nick Maloney’s ‘Skandia’ Matt Lees and ex-Clipper skipper and single-handed sailor Bombardier Bob Beggs as crew, plus myself, there was no shortage of experience with stories from some 5 round-the-world races set to keep us entertained through the darkest hours.
Short-tacking to the north of the shipping lanes through the Straits of Gibraltar gave us a scenic perspective of the coast-line from Marbella, past the rock of Gibraltar to Tarifa, which by then was bathed in a picturesque warm glow from the setting sun. The drill was an intense physical workout and a great opportunity to learn my lines! While the cockpit floor was at times a snake pit of different coloured strings, the layout was well designed such that the lines rarely snarled.
Just inside the cockpit coaming is a mind-boggling array of different sized clutches and jammers lined up like piano keys, each facilitating the tension or release of a halyard, tack line, furling line, mainsheet, tweaker or the traveler. We operated the primaries, sheet winches and running backstay drums by two 3-speed pedestals that often demanded two persons grunting apiece, with a console of toggles to engage and disengage between the set. To add to the challenge, a further bank of switches – this time, dials for the hydraulic rams, tensioning outhaul, forestay tension jib track car location and the running backstay deflector among other things, were also activated by the pedestals. It has to be said, that when it comes to the latest generation IMOCA 60 boats, the tools for fine-tuning are nothing short of awesome.
Lagos to Vila de Bispo was our third postcard-worthy vista in sunset hues. Now out in the Atlantic and edging north, there was a nip in the early evening breeze. The balmy warmth of the Mediterranean air barely hung on to the tail of late summer and with it, our days of sailing in shorts and t-shirts were soon to be behind us. On the upside of having to motor through the night, the below decks were nice and toasty. What a novelty eh! Dry and warm, the engine inadvertently heating the Wonderland interior-come-crawling space left by the ballast tanks, four in total, which stem fore and aft. Giant rectangular beanbags created a slumber party feel and never before have I slept so well or in such comfort on a race boat!
The tempo picked up after a morning’s reach past the cliffy outcrop of Cascais/Lisbon and by the time we left Vigo to starboard, we had begun to prepare the boat for the battle of Biscay. One of my favourite features of the Juan K ‘HUGO BOSS’ is the Volvo 70-esque deck section aft of the mast before the nav pods, where the sails may be stacked like a pile of chipolata sausages. The beauty in this design thinking is that the bags may simply be rolled from high to low side, or positioned around the centre line when tacking frequently as we did through the Straits. The pile is ratcheted down by stainless steel teeth to titanium pad-eyes. (Nearly) gone may be the days of man hauling ballooning bags out of round hatches, sock chutes and furling gear catching under the lip. If I’ve made that sound easy, think again! Even zipped into bags, each sail is almost twice my height in length and the same as my body weight or more. What sails were stowed down below we now sweated to relocate towards the furthest aft interior beam. All lines were meticulously flaked and hung in their cockpit bungee-loop brackets, while any gear that might fly was found a better home. We ate. We dressed. We waited. The anticipation was thrilling!
As is Sod’s law, the breeze notched up as the night wore on, until the gusts were peaking, high twenties true. My eyes became glued to the boat speed display, watching it creep ever higher! Looking aft, our wake began to furiously roll out a foamy white road through the sea – the kind you see ribboned into a rooster tail behind an ORMA 60 trimaran. The boat jerked and rumbled on, spilling down waves, connecting one wave with the next to create a ramp that shot the apparent wind forward, ran away with the boat speed and sent the bow plunging into the next wave in a furor of spray that often made its way back to the helm. Other waves took the boat beam on, to crash against the windward nav pod and cascade into the cockpit. What a wicked ride! Any weather helm was easily lifted by the ease of a sheet, making the steering light and responsive. We were simply tearing up the miles.
As the night wore on, the wind angle shifted forward, the boat heeled over harder and the breeze began to hit the low thirties. My top speed (at least, as far as I could see, when the deck wasn’t awash with white spume!) was 26kts. Not bad for an IMOCA 60 apprentice driver!
The English channel promised more yeeha downwind surfing conditions, however our second low pressure system shifted a few miles ahead out of reach, setting back our late evening ETA to the crack of dawn the following day. But with ‘HUGO BOSS’ under our feet, reputedly the fastest 60 in the IMOCA fleet, we managed to catch up with the tail edge of the blow and with the tide to boot in our favour, we enjoyed a final rip home to Gosport.
The Juan K designed ‘HUGO BOSS’ is Alex Thomson’s third IMOCA 60 and in terms of ideas, his experience is evident. I was very skeptical of the aft twin nav pods for one, but the practicality of being able to sit in shelter before the nav station within the reach of any sheet or to grab the wheel if need be, cannot be exulted more. Thomson’s modifications are shrewd since in terms of sheer power the IMOCA 60 ‘HUGO BOSS,’ is an absolute weapon with polars that may suggest an entirely different course to the other 60s in the race.
Imagine the latest Volvo 70 being raced non-stop, by two people around the world. The physical challenge to sail this beast short-handed, is absolutely jaw dropping. Fortunately the AT Racing team have boat handling comprehensively dialed in, making Alex Thomson and Andy Meiklejohn’s entry in the Barcelona World Race a solid podium bet. – Lia Ditton