We caught up with James before he heads to Lorient, France next week for the Défi Azimut Race with co-skipper, Stéphane Le Diraison, and got down to the nitty gritty detail on how Gentoo Sailing Team prepares for a race. From weather and fitness to penguin chocolate bars and everything in between...
The Défi Azimut is around the corner now with excitement building! How do you and co-skipper Stepháne get in the zone for a major race like this?
The preparation for these big events actually starts as soon as we finish the previous. We do continuous maintenance, repairs, and optimisation based on what we believe can be improved ahead of the next race. Throughout the year, I do a lot of fitness training as well as trying to develop and improve any other skills required to be a successful IMOCA skipper. Once we get close to a race and Stéphane and I are together and our focus moves onto the navigation and weather, where we work hard to put a plan in place ahead of the start.
Weather can be a wildcard in sailing. How do you monitor and analyse weather patterns before and during races and also cope when it changes?
Before the race, we spend a lot of time looking at the big picture weather, understanding the fundamentals of what is causing the wind we expect to see over the duration of a race. This way, we are able to predict what may happen, when, and whether the wind forecasts will show the true conditions.
We use a software onboard which allows us to input the boats theoretical and live data, which when put with a course and weather, can display what the expected fastest route from A to B will be. Of course, this is rarely the answer, but it provides a good understanding and foundation to build from. While we're racing, it's important that we have a plan, but a plan that is also fluid because the conditions you find are rarely exactly what the forecasts suggest over a period of a race!
How do you whip yourself into shape ahead of a race? Gym routine, gentle jog, a lot rope hauling...?
The IMOCA boats are very physically demanding, and combined with the lack of sleep and extreme conditions, it's important that I'm feeling 100% going into a race. For me, this involves regular fitness and gym throughout the year. In the build-up to a big race, it's also important that I get some time away from the boat, removing myself from the chaos of the race villages and allow my mind to relax and be fresh for the race starts.
Any pre-race rituals that keep the nerves at bay? If not, how do you ready yourself for any challenges that might crop up during a race?
I'm not really the type of person who is superstitious, however, while I was racing with Dee when we were doing our double-handed campaigns, we would always have pizza the night before an offshore race. This is a tradition that I've brought forward with me into the IMOCA circuit and the team don't seem to be complaining...
We know nutrition and hydration are pretty important for sustained performance. Can you give us an insight to what that will look like during the Défi Azimut?
Food plays a big role for me! Not only is it necessary in order to sustain performance and keep my energy up, it's also a big morale booster and retains a certain level of normality and routine to an otherwise endless day.
We have some great support from Basecamp Food who supply the team with our dried meals while training and racing. I'm not picky at all with food, so I like to keep my meal selection wide and constantly trying new meals. I also wouldn't dare leave the dock to go racing without penguin bars (of course)...
Will your Gentoo Youth Programme sailors have any involvement in this race as if so, what are their roles?
Absolutely! We're really excited to have three of them join us for the Défi Azimut. The Défi is a great event for the sailors on the programme because their involvement is so important and pretty varied. They will join me for the delivery down to Lorient, then be part of our shore team, helping to prepare the boat ahead of racing. During the Défi, two of the racing days are in a 'fully-crewed' format, which actually allows us to bring the sailors onboard during the racing. They will then help deliver Gentoo back to the UK after the event. In a two-week period, the Youth Programme sailors will get about 700nm of sailing onboard the IMOCA under their belts; an amazing experience and learning opportunity for them all.
Any specific tools or softwares you use to analyse past performance or track real-time data....and cool gadgets onboard?
We're collecting a lot of performance data whenever we leave the dock. This can be very useful when it comes to analysing what setups work best in order to get 100% out of the boat. This is everything from foil rake, keel cant, rudder angle, boat speed, wind data, and many more. We're currently trying new communication technology and also new motion sensors to help us understand things like slamming, acceleration, and heel angle - all of which can allow us to understand how the boat travels across the water and can be used to gain incremental performance in several areas.
What does rest and recovery look like after these big races? Can you truly relax or are you still on a racing high for days after?
It does take a little time to relax the mind after the longer races. During the solo races, it's so mentally engaging and competitive for such a long period of time, it's difficult to then finish a race and completely switch off. This is also partly due to the sleep schedule you've been on for a prolonged period of time, which I guess is a bit like jet lag, taking a few days to get into a 'normal' sleep routine.
Despite the boats being fairly large, there are few spaces onboard where you can fully stretch out, this combined with always keeping low and gripping on, means that I try to do a lot of stretching after these races. Fortunately, for an event like the 48hr offshore race in the Défi Azimut, this isn't enough time where you feel these impacts too bad, and you don't have the luxury to recover much as the following morning we start a coastal race which makes it tricky.