Most crews have a conservative gameplan, but a well-timed gamble can pay off big.
Strategic decisions are risky business in world of sailing
In some sense, we all yearn to be Aksel Magdahl.
Following the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race, his parents wept proudly. Strangers stopped him on Norwegian streets. His name will pop up in dock-side discourse for decades.
In Leg 5 of that race, down there beneath South America, Magdahl lived the rare experience of lonely accuracy. As navigator of the ransacked Ericsson 3, he clung to his conviction, braced when everybody else went that-a-way and wound up chortling over those who deemed him daft.
"If six of the best navigators in the world are going somewhere other than you, normally you start to wonder about what you are doing," he said recently in Alicante, Spain, where he is preparing for this year's race as Team Sanya's navigator.
The backlighting: Ericsson 3's weary crew had suffered an atrocious Leg 4. A storm between Singapore and Qingdao blew into race lore and left the yacht with a crack near the bow. Three crew members took injuries.
Repairs took eons. Magnus Olsson's boat barely made it out of Qingdao for Leg 5, making off for Rio de Janeiro seven hours after everybody else.
Still, it had grabbed second place three weeks into the 41-day, 12,500-mile leg when Magdahl found his moment.
He disobeyed a grand tradition of the southern ocean and ignored an overall sailing quirk, which is that Volvo 70s often save time by travelling longer, loopy distances where they can catch wind. Often they dip south to do just that in the remote and rebellious southern ocean.
Everybody turned south except Ericsson 3.
"I wasn't sure what the other boats would do," he said. "I thought Puma would go with us into this low. I tried to go really hard for this low. I wasn't looking for some magic. For me the numbers sort of made sense. So we went for it. There wasn't much time to discuss."
And: "Of course, I did get a bit nervous when I saw Puma going south."
Fortunately, Magdahl is not the type for whom nervousness causes distress. "I'm probably more of a quiet, analytic-type personality," he said. "I feel sort of neutral emotionally most of the time."
Well, the outside world had shifted off neutral. Ericsson contacted the boat to ensure it had not lapsed into further calamity. Family members received fretful calls. Through Race Control's communications, a rival skipper commented that he did not envy Magdahl's skipper for his wayward navigator. A Danish website referred to the navigator as perhaps somehow addled.
"Two days afterward," Magdahl said, "they were all two days behind us."
Ericsson 3 won Leg 5 with such ease that Olsson, the skipper, told the Washington Post, in Rio "We'll have the mast and the keel off and be working on them when they get here."
With his daring move, Magdahl ignored conventional Volvo Ocean Race strategy, which mandates conservatism. He took a risk - a concept that has been given much thought by Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper.
"I think the best two words you can use to sum up strategy are 'risk management'," Walker said. "It's all about figuring out what sort of tactical gambles are worth the risk.
"If you really believe it's going to pay to go one way east of the Canary Islands and the whole fleet is going the other side, what are you going to do? Are you going to take that risk or are you going to stay in touch, hang with the fleet?
"There's also a risk management in terms of performance with the boat. If you push too hard, you break something, you might have to push out of the way or you might have to make repairs."
Daredevils are often memorable, and Walker recites the time Swedish Match coursed away from the fleet in Cape Town as a theme people still broach. Said the Abu Dhabi helmsman/trimmer and experienced navigator Simon Fisher: "It's always good when you see someone take a risk and it pays off. Sailors in the past sort of animated the race with their strategies."
But there is more involved.
"If you're in the lead or one of the contenders, you're probably less likely to take a risky move," Fisher said. "It might be the case you see the lead boat, the boat that actually wins, sail conservatively and doesn't do any sort of hee-haw, high-risk move. If you look at the last race, Ericsson 4 sailed a really solid race. They were always consistent, never did anything stupid or make any big mistakes."
Walker contends that navigator Jules Salter's choices aboard eventual champion Ericsson 4 matched Magdahl for prudence. Staying in touch with the fleet preserved second place for the leg.
"If you think about it," Walker said, "everyone is getting the same information, and everyone's trying to go to the same destination, and everyone's probably using the same computer programme, and they're all smart people. So you would think everybody would go the same way, but they don't always."
"The real skill," Walker said, "is how close to reality the weather forecast is going to be." So the real skill comes in second-guessing: the weather models, the satellite pictures, each other. And only rarely, somebody might second-guess into a rare day of lonely accuracy.
Said Magdahl: "I certainly used up a few years of luck right there."