Designing sails for the Volvo Ocean Race

What does it take to design sails for the Volvo Open 65?

There is no better person to answer that question than North Sails’ Gauiter Sergent, VO65 Designer of Record.

Based at the North sails loft in France, Gautier has traveled the world as an aero engineer, designing for a range of sailboats including everything from small skiffs and Olympic class dinghies, grand prix yachts from RC44s and TP52s, to Mini Maxi projects, IMOCA and VO70 ocean racers.

Equipped with a wide skill set and three Volvo Ocean Race campaigns already completed, Gautier took on designing the 11-sail inventory for the new boat. The 12th edition of the race will be sailed under one design rules which, in Gautier’s words “changes everything.”

Gautier, considering the many design projects you have undertaken, are there any that stand out as being particularly significant to you?

I think the biggest turning point in my career was designing sails for the Brazil 1 Volvo Ocean Race campaign. While working at North Sails in New Zealand, I had access to many compelling design jobs and I was supported by strong mentors. Brazil 1 came about in 2005.

During that time North’s more experienced designers, Burns Fallow and Mickey Ickert, were busy working for America’s Cup campaigns. They felt I was ready to spearhead the Brazil 1 project, which was a huge opportunity for me.

Brazil 1 was a challenge because we had a very small budget and a short training window. Because of this, a lot of the design work relied on the sail simulations we created in Membrain and Flow (North Design Suite software). The time constraint really forced me to use the tools in NDS to produce sails that were going to fit the first time.

On top of that, we had a team of sailors that were a bit new but very talented (Brazil 1 was Torben Grael’s first try at a Volvo). We felt we had nothing to lose, and the team ended up 3rd but close to 2nd. It was quite an unexpected result and we were happy.

It has been said that Groupama may have won the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 in the design office. Can you tell us about your experience with that campaign?

With Franck Cammas, it’s all part of a racing philosophy. Whether you are the cook or the physio or the design team, you have to think performance. You have to think “will what I am doing now contribute to making the boat go faster?” It was true for everyone on the team: accounting, marketing, sailing crew, even logistics.

As a design team I think that, yes, we did a good job. But everyone did their part in that success

How does designing sails for the new VO65 one design differ from previous Volvo Ocean Race projects?

You still look at performance, but in a different way.

We approached the VO65 project knowing that there would not be a round of test sails. Essentially, we had one shot to get it right. The first sails we produced were to be used by the teams as pre-race sails, which in the end would be extremely similar to the final race inventory.

The focus was on getting everything right, and maybe not pushing the limits to the same extent that we could have done in the past – in terms of weight, loads, and so on. We had to be relatively safe.

Can you tell us about the design process. Where does it start?

The process began at a concept meeting during the Miami stopover of the 2011-12 VOR, a large group of designers exchanged some aspects of what they had learned. Honestly it was a bit difficult because the current race was still underway so we couldn’t share very much information.

The group talked about structure but did not exchange any data. The one design sail concept was not decided until after the race, in August 2012, and our design team (Juan Messeguer, Steve Calder, JB Braun, Henrik Soderlund, Jeremy Elliott, myself and others) got to work that September.

At that point, the hull was already designed, and our first focus was on the rig. I started working with Jarrad Wallace from Southern Spars to refine the mast and rigging, focusing on the spar stiffness and shroud positions. Once that was sorted, we knew how much load we could apply to each sail and how it would affect parameters like forestay sag and mast bend.

We had a lot of interaction with the materials engineers at the North Sails 3D plant in Minden, NV. When it comes to 3Di, the engineers are always making changes and improvements to the tapes, which end up being the core structure of the sail.

Because the VOR one design rule is very strict, we had to make sure we used tapes that were not going to change. The tapes we use now must be the same tapes we will use two years from now for the nextVolvo Ocean Race.

Meanwhile, we continue to push the boundaries of how much dyneema, aramid, and/or UV protection we use in the tapes. Matt Savage, one of the engineers, spent almost a year testing the longevity of different materials with variables such as UV, water, and flogging degradation. So we were constantly interacting with those guys during the design phase.

Since then, we have done a lot of CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) work to provide the teams with decent polars and VPPs (Velocity Prediction Programs). Working together with KND Sailing Performance, we produced a decent package that included target boat speeds and sail crossovers (ranges for each sail configuration).

Now that five teams are sailing with the pre-race sails, are there any changes or adjustments being made to the race sails due in August?

The decision was made that any changes to the pre-race sails would be made in agreement with all the teams. Those that launched their boats earlier were hesitant to change very much, because they had plenty of practice with the sails and did not want to lose the advantage of starting early.

We sat down with the race organisers and all of the teams for a meeting on the third of April. At that time I presented a list of feedback based on what we’d seen and heard from the sailors. As the meeting progressed, we quickly realized that the teams did not want to change very much at all. All the changes we agreed on were very minor details, for example we are going to shorten the luff length of the MH0 by 80 millimetres.

We were pleased to learn that the teams were happy to use the sails as-is. It is a credit to North Sails because if there had been anything major, I’m sure the teams would have changed it. For me as a sail designer, it’s not as much fun because we always want to change and tweak the sails – it’s in our nature!

What do you think of the VO65 package as a whole? Is everything performing the way you expected?

You have to look at the boats for what they are. You can’t compare them to VO70s or IMOCAs because they have so many specifications. They are one-design boats that were designed to go around the world with little trouble. They are probably not as fast as the VO70s, but the rules have changed.

The cost of the boats was reduced so they are lighter and less powerful. Generally speaking, I think the VO65s will be interesting because they are technical.

Regarding the one design rule, its a good thing because it will force the sailors to find ways to make the boat go faster. I foresee them being very demanding in terms of trimming, sail configurations, daggerboard settings, and so on. Good trimmers and good helmsman will surely make a difference, which is inherent to the new one design concept – to put the race back in the sailor’s hands.

Is there anything in particular that you are excited to see in the upcoming Volvo?

It will be interesting for us to see how the sails last. This will be a big benchmark for North Sails because the sail limitation is very strict – only 11 sails to go around the world. In the last Volvo Ocean Race we were allowed 17, the one before was 24, and prior to that was 38 sails. Time goes by and the number of sails keeps shrinking.

The Volvo Race Organisers came to North Sails because of the proven longevity of our 3Di sails. All of the 2011-2012 VOR teams each raced start-to-finish with only two mainsails on hand, which is a statement in itself. Now with the one design rule, the sails will be pushed harder than ever before.

If you look at the MOD70s, the sailors ended up pushing upwind with Code Zeros in up to 12 knots. These are the types of configurations we cannot plan for, but the teams find them in their search for gained speed.

Personally, I’m excited to see how creative the sailors can be. Surely they will find configurations for the sails that we have never seen before. One of the fascinating things about one design racing is the challenge of not changing your equipment – you have to invent ways to use it differently. 


This article was first published in the August-September 2014 issue of Australian Sailing + Yachting.


Race Yachts
West Systems
M.O.S.S Australia
Race Yachts
West Systems