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Volume XVII, Issue 12 - March 19 - March 25, 2009
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Tales of a Virtual Volvo Racer

Off the coast of Somalia, pirates were a real threat for the real Volvo racers.
But our digital vessels passed through without event.

I admit it. I’m addicted

by Steve Carr with Ron Katz

I’m addicted to the Volvo Ocean Race. As 55 sailors on five Volvo 70s race across the cruel Southern Ocean in Leg 5, I race the same course by Virtual Volvo.

The Virtual Volvo Ocean Race is a computer game that mirrors what the Volvo 70s are experiencing in real time. Virtual sailors are governed by an international jury affiliated with United Games, the clever folks from the Netherlands who are staging this giant free-for-all. We don’t have to follow all the scoring gates and course restrictions. Off the coast of Somalia, pirates were a real threat for the real Volvo racers. But our digital vessels passed through without event.

Three judges mediate all disputes and resolve all deviations from the rules of the virtual race. I broke a rule when I didn’t round a mark properly off the coast of East Africa; when the server went down around midnight I couldn’t change direction. The judges didn’t penalize me.

There are nine legs, with the best six scores for each boat tallied. Three legs are required: Leg 5 (Qingdao, China to Rio), Leg 7 (Galway, Ireland, to Marstrand, Sweden) and Leg 9 (Stockholm to St. Petersburg). The winning virtual racer will receive a new Volvo C30 car at the finish in St. Pete. In addition, the top 10 finishers of each leg get nifty prizes like TNG watches and Volvo gear.

But for most of the 175,000 virtual sailors from 180 countries — we include former Whitbread/Volvo sailors, school children, teams that man their computers 24/7 and weekend sailors — it isn’t about prizes. It’s about competing and having fun, pretending you are skippering the sailboat of your dreams, checking out parts of the world you never knew existed.

You constantly battle wind and water, just as the real Volvos do. The dead-air Doldrums that ring the planet at the equator can stall your progress for days; powerful currents can push you home or onto a shoal.

The strategy is almost three dimensional. For instance, when sailing from China to the tip of South America, is it faster to head south to New Zealand and catch the Roaring Forties blasting off Antarctica or sail a more direct route east to the Hawaiian Islands on the westerly trade winds? There are so many critical choices.

Off to the Races

This is how it works.

First off, you have to register at You then get to name your boat. Mine is called Pinball Wizard. You can give the boat and sails all sorts of snazzy colors.

The race begins when the real boats start. If you aren’t there, the computer sets an optimal course until you can log on and start moving your boat around as you like.

The race screen shows the section of the ocean where you are sailing, along with land masses and currents. A compass dial indicates your heading, along with wind direction and speed. You click on the course arrow and turn it until you are heading at the optimum speed, which is determined by the direction and force of the winds that are programmed into the game, taken from weather satellites and updated every 12 hours.

The other key ingredient is the sails. You are given a light-wind jib, a jib and Genoa for winds over 20 knots, a code zero for reaching and a heavy and light spinnaker. As you click on the sails, the computer instantly shows you how each affects your speed. There are also wind arrows scattered across the screen to show what’s ahead, and the computer allows you to gauge how winds will change across the course during the next 12, 24, and 36 hours. The computer also tells you what place you are in and your exact coordinates. So — assuming you can monitor your progress every few hours and you understand the basic concept of sailing — you are off to the races.

What makes virtual racing even more amusing is that you see other boats on the screen. When you click on them, their names and nationalities appear. You can make a boat a friend and monitor its progress against your own. You can even send a short message. I have made new friends from Malta, Norway, Brazil, France, New Zealand and the U.S.

Virtually Obsessed

Ron Katz — the bowman on the boat I used to race on and virtual skipper of The Meddler — got me roped into this silly game. Since November, my life has revolved around the Virtual Volvo.

My girlfriend thinks I’m totally nuts. She makes fun of me and pats me on the head like a little boy whenever I go “play with the toy boat.”

But it’s no laughing matter, and things can get testy. You become a slave to your computer lest you run aground, get stuck in a wind shift and end up losing 10,000 places in the course of an evening.

When we go out to dinner or a party, I may have to leave so I can move my boat. It’s not uncommon for me to get up in the middle of the night to check what’s happening. When we went on vacation last month, I spent $5 to log onto the computer at our hotel every time I needed to change course.

Eventually, I gave Ron my password and let him skipper my boat while I was gone. That wasn’t the smartest move. On the way from Capetown to India, Ron smoked me. As he was leaving me in his wake, he sent me the following message: “See you later. Much later. And look out for Marina Girl. She’s about to roll you.”

I had never noticed Marina Girl until Ron pointed her out. I added her to my friends list, and she asked me who I was. From that point on, we raced side by side to the finish of Leg 2, chatting back and forth almost every day. I beat her in the last few hours. I was at my computer when the wind shifted dramatically off the coast of India so I was there to change my sails while she was away from her computer at work.

During Leg 3, the same thing happened. Ron blew my doors off and warned of the lurking Marina Girl. Once again, she and I battled all the way to Singapore.

So, here we are, over three weeks into 13,000-mile Leg 5 from China to Rio, and poor Ron got sucked into a dead zone of no wind somewhere east of the Philippines. Guess who’s right on his tail? Marina Girl.

“Go get her, Ron!”

© COPYRIGHT 2009 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.