Around the world in 11,000 simulations

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Around the world in 11,000 simulations
 
Getting the right weather strategy is vital for any team in the Volvo Ocean Race and for race organisers it's certainly no less important. In plotting every potential route for the 2014-15 edition, Race meteorologist Gonzalo Infante has become probably the world's busiest virtual sailor, racking up millions of miles in simulations to make sure everything is in order for the 12th running of the race. We caught up with Gonzalo shortly after he completed his 11,000th routing simulation in a virtual Volvo Ocean 65.

Gonzalo, what is your role within the race organisation?

Quite simply, I'm here in Alicante to answer the questions the race needs answers to. The organisers want to know how fast the new one design Volvo Ocean 65 boats will be and what the potential navigation hazards are, our operations team wants to know when the boats will arrive in the ports, race management wants to know which sails the teams are going to use and there are lots and lots of other questions.

It’s not a black and white situation as you can imagine: I provide educated guesses more than facts, because weather forecasting isn’t an exact science.

How do you go about getting the answers the race needs?

The first challenge was to work on wind and weather data, to establish weather patterns for the next edition of the race in 2014-15. I've been calculating the different routings for all potential stopovers and all the possible leg combinations for these ports. I used an average of seven years per combination, with 30 simulations per year and three different polar boat speeds. In total, I’ve calculated more than 11,000 routing simulations so far.

I also do a lot of research on general navigation in pilots or sailing direction books. I look at the different route options and hazards such as traffic, ice and head winds.

You studied electrical engineering before specialising in meteorology. What tools are you using for this job?

Many! The software I’m using is a mix of commercial tools and in-house builds. To evaluate the boat performance, designers normally use Velocity Prediction programmes. Yet, in real life you have to deal with things like manoeuvres, sea state and weather. These factors penalise your average speed and I take all that into account by applying ‘penalties’.

Apart from the sailing itself, what else affects the route?

The route needs to balance sporting and commercial interests but it also needs to be realistic in terms of logistics. Sometimes we cannot go straight from port A to port B because the material we have to ship would not arrive on time. In that case we have to find ways to make the legs last longer.

Did you notice important weather changes in recent years?

Well, every year is different but big patterns remain. Saying that, you can always find changes that have great impact on both timings and strategy. Let’s look at the trades wind consistency along the African coast, for example. 2007 was a very constant year in terms of trades winds, with more downwind sailing close to the African coast. Meanwhile, in 2011, 2010 and 2005, there was a lot of storm activity and westerly routes paid dividends more often. Just think back to the dilemma the teams all faced in Leg 1 in the last edition.

What differs in terms of routing now that the boat is one design?

The one design boat isn’t built yet so I had to use both the Volvo Ocean 65 VPP and Volvo Open 70 data. But it’s also easier to run a routing software now that all the boats will be the same… I don’t have to look at performance differences.

Finally, could you give us any clue on where the race is going?

It will start in Alicante! Expect the rest to be revealed starting in January.