As a former Volvo Ocean Race navigator, Marcel van Triest knows that getting the weather wrong means blowing your chances of victory. The Dutchman will supply a smarter, more streamlined system for the teams during the 2011-12 edition, when weather data analysis could provide the best hope of a competitive edge.
The 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race is shaping up to be an almighty tussle, with the key challengers prepared to battle it out with top-tier crews in latest-generation Volvo Open 70s. If the race is as close as most observers expect, it will only put more pressure on the navigators to get the most out of the weather data being made available.
In 2008-09, race organisers sent all competitors the same GRIB file every six hours. This was both a heavy file to download and a package too big to be used in its entirety.
This time around, Van Triest is offering the Volvo Ocean Race a different weather solution. An experienced sailor – he took part in the race five times – he has developed a way for the navigators to access and download GRIB files that will give teams forecasts where they actually want them, the way they want them.
“What we provide is an interface between the end user and the data so that it’s easy and reliable to get access to those large data sets,” he explains.
“That’s why we’re here now, supplying that in a closed environment to the competitors. They all have access to the same data but they can decide how much they want, one week, three days, I want this area, that area…
“As far as the data availability is concerned, the competitive edge is not really there any more. So the competitive edge is now found in the way people use the data and interpret it.”
So why is the data so important to the Volvo Ocean Race?
“Racing is a continuous quest to find the next bit of wind, which we need to move the boats,” Van Triest explains.
“The most stressful moment for a navigator is not when the conditions are strong and the adrenaline is going. The most stressful time is when there is no wind and you don’t know where the other guys are. You’ll be completely paranoid that they have found a bit of wind and it will be hard to get back.”
With the race gearing up to be so tight, Van Triest expects a cautious approach from the leading challengers at the start of the race, with more aggressive tactics to come later on. If the boats remain on equal terms, with no significant breakages and with equally competitive crews, it will be all about the best use of the data.
“A successful navigator is an attacking navigator,” he says. “A defensive navigator is someone blessed with having everything else on the boat better than everyone else’s. A very quick boat makes the navigator look good, for sure.
“You see on the virtual game that the guy who gets the weather right wins the race,” he adds.
“If everything else is equal, the only thing that makes the difference is in who gets the weather right.”
Comparing the current situation to what sailing was like when he started out, it is the quality of the data that amazes him most.
“If I look back over those 20 years it is night and day on everything,” he says. “If you look at weather before in the southern ocean no one had any idea what was going on. You were dependent on some sketchy analysis charts if you were lucky.
“Now the satellites are there and the computer models of the atmosphere have evolved massively, which has everything to do with the computers being more powerful. So now there are quite reliable digital models of the earth’s atmosphere that give us the actual conditions and the forecasts and that is getting better every couple of years.”
And how would he describe his current role?
“We are the delivery channel,” he says. “We are the supermarket. We don’t make the peanut butter.”