Setting out to work with two Volvo Ocean Race teams was always going to be a challenge for Zhik's first official involvement with the race. Yet, it was the pinnacle opportunity to put the company's ocean yachting range to the ultimate test.
In the Spring of 2017, Zhik became the Official Clothing Partner for both team AkzoNobel and Dongfeng Race Team, the overall winners of the 2017/18 Race.
Working with one Volvo Race team is a big project. To work with two, as a first foray into the event, was no small mountain to scale. It was a huge journey for the entire company. Back in the spring of 2017, no one could have anticipated the ultimate accolade received at the end of the Race:
“Thanks for your support and all you have done to improve our gear. We all have been impressed!” Charles Caudrelier, overall winning skipper, Dongfeng Race Team
For both the teams, the brief was about helping their crews find the extra edge. The Volvo 65's are brutal machines, with little or no cockpit protection for the crews. The new course was longer, with more time in the Southern Ocean. And the boats quickly proved to be even wetter than expected.
Luke Molloy, helmsman and sail trimmer on teamAkzoNobel explains: “We realised that the race was 1.5 times the length of any previous Volvo Ocean Race. So we worked with Zhik on refining the garments needed by making them multi purpose, covering a wide range of conditions.”
In addition to the ocean gear, a complete range of products received additional development for the race including boots, thermals, and light weight waterproofs.
The same process used for Olympic team garment development was adopted. Bart Milczarchzyk, Head of Global Design and the team spent considerable time listening to both Volvo teams to understand their requirements and priorities for performance clothing. New design concepts are shared, gaining input and verification with the athletes before extensive testing, and then ultimately going into production for sailors worldwide.
Over the last half decade, Zhik has invested significant time and effort in the research and development that led to the launch of Zhik's Aroshell (coastal) fabric and Isotak (offshore/ocean) fabric that have been used as they expanded their range into technical performance yachting gear.
Typical of Zhik's innovation approach, the team were not content to accept standard, industry fabrics without thorough analysis. Instead, after considerable in-house testing, they took a selection of fabrics to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
It's well known that there is a lack of consistent industry standard tests for waterproof fabrics. So, the University undertook an independent scientific project to create a robust testing process to measure waterproofness and durability over a period of time.
The tests simulated vigorous wear, accelerating the process that happens on board yachts. Throughout the test, the fabrics were re-tested for waterproofness at regular time intervals. The results showed that Zhik's Isotak X fabric is four times more 'durable waterproof' than other fabrics. The Aroshell fabric came out as three times more waterproof over the same extended time periods.
The most extreme yacht racing event is the ultimate test for any marine gear and equipment, and one that many sailors will never fully experience.
Before and during the race was a continuous process of development and learning. With the team working hard back in Australia, Zhik also had on the ground support at each stopover. Plus, members of the design team flying in to meet the crews as they arrived at each port.
Working so closely with the VOR crews meant Zhik could accelerate the design and testing process, compressing what would normally have been about two years of development work into a much shorter time span.
The intense on water laboratory, both in training and the early stages of the race, threw up additional detailed requirements and opportunities for improvements on the go including:
Night visibility – both teams identified that visibility of the crew at night could be improved. Gear was modified during the race to include high vis panels and bio-motion reflective marks. These showed the crew's movement on deck, and if they are facing away or towards you to aid communication at night.
Countering the deck grip – the crews were changing their deck grip at every stop over, which provided the best platform for testing and verifying new abrasive reinforcing materials.
Water repellent shirts and more – Avlare, Zhik's highly water repellent technical stretch shirt fabric was proven to have far more applications than originally anticipated. Many new styles were tried and worn throughout the warmer legs.
The opportunity to learn about fabrics in action compared to in the lab was also immense. Isotak X durable waterproof credentials certainly seemed to bear out the laboratory tests. Simeon Tienpont wore only two Isotak X smocks throughout the entire race.
During the race, Dongfeng Race Team requested a light breathable smock for use in the Northern Hemisphere legs. Remember the hot summer season of 2018? With ocean levels of protection from incessant high speed spray, it needed to be lighter weight than their Ocean gear, with very high breathability.
To address this, Zhik's Aroshell fabric, predominantly used for the coastal/inshore ranges, was used to create an lightweight smock with a difference. The addition of a zip on Adaptive Hood, as developed for the ocean range, enabled the crew to turn an inshore smock into a highly protective offshore smock, as conditions on board changed.
The new Aroshell smock with the adaptive hood was launched into the Zhik range earlier this year.
Further development has gone into Zhik's Seaboot range. “The aim was to enhance what was already a solid product, focusing on support comfort ” comments Drue Kerr, one of Zhik's footwear designers. “A new injection moulded sole was created. This allowed us to control the rubber formula and grip pattern with more accuracy. At the same time we made the rubber sole more grippy and more durable. Plus removed complexity from the manufacturing process which improves reliability.”
The results and rewards:
As a result of Zhik's involvement with the Volvo Ocean Race, there are a number of other new innovations. The Isotak X range has already won a prestigious METS DAME Award for design and innovation in technical clothing.
Certainly, the Zhik team can be proud of their achievements, especially when you get feedback from the sailors and support teams with their exacting standards.
Bruno Dubois, Team Manager, Dongfeng Race Team complimented the Zhik team: “Thank you Zhik. Very good job from you and your team. Thanks for your support. You guys never give up. Your resilience is the same as our Team.”
As many of the products are now lining up to hit the market, Piet Poelmann, Zhik's CEO has the final word: “What an incredible journey this has been for Zhik. We knew this would be a huge project to take our kit to the next level. The fact that both teams are so happy makes the company very proud. We have helped them to reach the podium and the great thing is that this technology is now available for consumers to buy.”
Find out more at www.zhik.com
– Liz Rushall