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From the Pilothouse

Jan 1, 2003

Shortly before the Volvo Ocean Race boats departed for Miami from Rio de Janeiro, I spoke with Steve Hayles, a Hamble, England, native, who is navigator aboard the boat Team Tyco. The vessel was in third place overall at press time. He spoke to me via cell phone from the dock at Marina Gloria in Rio and described to me the gear he uses and the skills he employs to guide Team Tyco around the world — seeking favorable weather conditions and currents that may offer a chance at pulling ahead of the fleet.

Hayles said the role of the navigator has developed well beyond deriving and recording one's position — the major challenge of the navigator of generations past — and that the real challenge for him is deciphering the loads of weather information available at his fingertips. He has access to a broad array of weather-related websites and receives, via Inmarsat B, daily weather reports and frequent position reports of the other boats from race headquarters in the U.K. Yet, despite the volume of computer data, he still considers himself foremost a sailor, as opposed to a computer technician or a meteorologist. "The technology allows me to be a better sailor. I spend time fussing with the computers, but I spend much of the time trying to sit back and look at the big picture — that's the hard part," Hayles told me.

After receiving the GRIB files, Hayles runs the data through Deckman for Windows, although he allowed he could just as easily use the MaxSea or Raytech programs, and then he creates the day's possible game plans. "What you're really using the computers for is modeling situations," Hayles said. "I sometimes imagine, for example, that I'm on another boat, and I run a weather package from their boat. Then the software calculates what their options are. I can then determine our best plan."

Hayles and the other Volvo navigators are utterly dependent on their computers and the information that they can supply; yet he said his most important tool for navigating in the Volvo Ocean Race is the collection of paper charts he has aboard. "For over a year I've been studying the route between here and Miami," he said. "I looked at historical data of weather systems on this route and applied to the data how an Ocean 60 would respond in these conditions. We did this for over a hundred systems — systems that have already happened and been recorded. This is not hypothetical weather information. I have written the results in notes all over my charts. There are arrows for currents, notes that say, 'Don't go over here,' etc. We can constantly modify the big picture plan with the weather information we're getting at any given time, but you have to have a plan going into it. It's a big ocean, a bloody big ocean. If you don't have a plan, you could go anywhere."

That today's navigators use personalized paper charts is not an insignificant fact. Throughout nautical history, captains and navigators have taken notes on paper charts, the result of their own soundings and observations ("Here be dragons," etc.), and, over time, built impressive chart collections as they progressed through their careers as seamen. Some of these old maps and charts remain in galleries and private collections today and represent an invaluable glimpse of history through the eyes of the prudent sailor. The Volvo Race navigators are contributing to that tradition.

My questioning of Hayles wasn't entirely innocent. While it's true that this issue's special section is dedicated to weather electronics — see Dan Piltch's and John Kettlewell's coverage beginning on page 62 — I'll be navigating an entry in this June's Bermuda Race: the J/120 Severin; to that end, I was squeezing him for his trade secrets. We spoke in March, when the last of the winter's snows were still falling over Casco Bay, but I pulled out Chart No. 108, Southeast Coast of North America, and began my scratchings. The chart, already replete with rhumb line, notes on the Gulf Stream's early meanderings, and HF frequencies, hangs on my office wall.

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