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The Virtual Racing Sailor

It started in December 2008. My husband Niels began to display some very strange behavior. At all hours of the day and night, over and above working hours, he wanted to go to his office. Having been married to him for 34 years, I am aware he’s a bit of a workaholic, but this was somehow different. Any excuse would do and even trying to lure him away for the weekend to a nearby getaway became difficult.

Eventually, after checking that the business was going fine, neither so busy that he had to work double time to keep up, nor so slow that he had to put in double time to generate more jobs, I got to the bottom of the mystery. He had become a virtual sailor and his office computer had become his cockpit and console.

Not being able to participate in real round the world racing, he had logged onto two virtual races, the Vendee Globe (VirtualRegatt.com) and Volvo Ocean Race (VolvoOceanRaceGame.org) and was fulfilling his childhood dream of being up there with the best sailors in the world, battling wind and sea. Fortunately, it could all be done from his computer without the painful cold and exhaustion, crew tension and sponsor pressure of the modern racer.

He sits in front of the computer screen umming and ahhing about which sail to put up or take down without touching anything salty or soggy, and happily commits his vessel to high winds or a close shave with a dangerous coastline, without the least concern about safety or rebellious, seasick crew.

The difference between virtual racing and the real thing is vast, but they do share one thing in common—once you are hooked, you’re hooked! The yachts are identical, so it is skipper pitting his skills against skipper as conditions change. A lot of the fun is observing other racers around you as well as at the front of the fleet and comparing what they are doing. It is obvious from the frequency with which some virtual competitors are tacking, that they must set an alarm clock to wake up every couple of hours throughout the night to adjust their sails and direction. I tell you, this is serious stuff.

The wind changes are up on the website every day at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., Trinidad time, and at these times Niels, and about a million other virtual “wannabee” sailors are jamming the internet, desperate to get their next virtual fix. When he can’t tweak his sails and sailing angles every day to make the best of the wind shifts, he gets withdrawal symptoms. So our recent sailing trips away on the real thing, our ketch Baraka, posed a problem.

When we went to Grenada for four days, he pointed his virtual boat on what he thought was a good line down the east coast of South America, only to come back and find that he was heading for Antarctica, couldn’t turn the yacht around, and had to ask the organizers to restart him, losing a hundreds of thousands of places.

When we spent nine days in the Monamo River in Venezuela over Christmas, careful routing was needed to get the virtual yacht to clear the next two “ice gates” and at the same time not collide with the southern tip of New Zealand. This maneuver was successfully accomplished through blind luck, but at the cost of 4,000 places.

A grounding at Cape Horn while in Scotland Bay for the weekend, cost several thousand more. At one stage, much to his glee, two other competitors, thinking he was onto something, followed his straight line course, also losing places, before realizing that his yacht was “skipperless.”

Positions change wildly at the start of each race leg, and one can drop from 1500 to 35,000 in a couple of hours. At being forced to restart at a position of 128,000, Niels has now managed to claw his way up to 44,000 and is hoping to finish at better than that. First or last, it is obviously great fun as 319,000 other armchair competitors can confirm. It is also good theoretical weather routing practice for when we eventually sail back home through the Pacific and Indian Oceans to South Africa.

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