Nyfiken på… Aksel Magdahl, navigatör

Aksel Magdahl really jump-started his career as a navigator during the last edition of Volvo Ocean Race. He impressed many of us, both with some gutsy calls, but also by being a great commuicator (currently we follow him at @akselmagdahl).

As we’re into navigation, routing and all the tech stuff needed, it was great to have a chat with Aksel on VOR, navigation and the future.

Can you say something about your sailing background?
I sailed optimist, then a few years break from active sailing before I started sailing keel boats like 11-metre, X-99, Melges 24 and 40-45 footers which were the classes in Norway at the time. In keel boats I went through all the positions onboard except bow, then ended up with tactics and helming. Increased ambitions a bit with an IMS boat that we sailed mostly in Scandinavia, this was a chance to get some proper nav software onboard which I used while calling tactics.
There was an attempted Norwegian entry into the “Timberland Europrix” round Europe race in Corel 45s and I was selected to be on the crew, but the race never happened. However we spent the 2003-2004 winter training and I assume this lead to Knut Frostad trying me out as navigator on the “Academy” ORMA60 trimaran for the Nokia Oops Cup in the Nordic. I spent almost three years full time with Knut on the trimaran and also worked with him on the project management side.
How did you get into sailing? And into the nav station?
My father is a keen sailor so he bought me an optimist quite early. He always owned and sailed keel boats so that was not strange to me when I took up the sailing again in bigger boats.
Nav station. When I quit the dinghy sailing, I spent more time working with computers. I ran my own BBS (Internet’s predecessor) and did some programming. That was important for what has happened since. Sailing IMS, I used the computer to assist me while calling tactics. And I have always assisted teams sailing offshore races with their strategy, which I learn a lot from. I also followed and analyzed all the big races. In 2004 I became the navigator for Knut Frostad in the Nordic ORMA60 circuit Nokia Oops Cup, where we sailed for three years. That was my first full-time professional sailing engagement, and I learnt a lot in the intensive circuit and being part of that environment.
Then there was VOR, where I could spend all my time on nav only. I worked closely with the very skilled meteorologist Chris Bedford in the year of preparation before the race, and that made me develop a different way of analyzing weather than what I had used before. It was fantastic to have the best tutor possible sitting next to me for more than one year, answering all my questions and discussing interesting phenomenas.
Other favorite navigators?
No, I never sailed with another navigator so nothing to base that on. I am looking forward to sailing with another navigator some time.


What did you expect from the VOR before the race?
 That it would be tough, and that I would not regret taking part. I knew it would be a great experience and the perfect project to do as my first VOR, sailing alongside the more experienced E4 guys during the training. Looking objectively at the teams participating, I realized that we would probably be fighting at the back of the fleet against Delta Lloyd and Russia.
… and how did it differ? Greatest lesson learned?
It is always differing, what is going on is so diverse from day to day. In the VOR, very unexpected things happens. Every minute was an opportunity to make a gain, and that really gave me a kick lasting through the whole race. Long before I thought about sailing the VOR, I kind of thought that the navigators make big long term calls and then has to wait a few days to see how it went, but that is far away from the truth. The sailing is tactical, and very involved for a navigator.
I learned a lot about sailing the VO70, as that was a new boat to me. And about being in a big project with many people involved. I don’t think I “learned a lesson” during the race, we generally did very well. We did mistakes but they were due to weaknesses that we knew about and could not change given our position being the 2nd boat in our team. For the races to come, I will be happy if we do as few mistakes as we did this time.

What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?
Good question. Looking at the big picture, I think I am quite happy with everything. I think the race mostly went well for us, given where we started and our role in the ERT campaign. Of course, I have many things I want to improve on myself and I assume that is valid also for the rest of the team.
If you think about navigation, there are a couple of times I come to think about.
Doldrums in leg 1, we were leading in on the same longitude as the boats behind. That was according to plan.. In hindsight, we should not have taken the lead south, but west. But it is easy to say in hindsight. The breeze was always favoring the boats behind there, so it was difficult to lead. In fact, we were set up as the 2nd most westerly boat when our company gibed south. Telefonica Blue and Black sailed straight past us on the same track so we were struggling a bit in these conditions as well. I think our wind speed limit before parking completely was a bit higher than the Telefonica boats. Also we had not sailed in these kind of light airs before, so we did not sail the boat very well (in the beginning).
Leg 8, we got too tired onboard E3 and did not follow our game plan. That ruined a very good track record of only podium positions when not hitting things and breaking the boat (leg 4 and 7)…


Hardest decision in the race?
There are many, but I try raise my head above the psychology of it and to decide on the merits with an organized approach. That makes it easier. The decisions on shore were harder than the ones on the boat. What can make a decision hard onboard is if you have strong, differing opinions that raise the prestige stakes. Let’s say that I am 60/40 in favor of staying on our current tack, while someone onboard really think that we should tack. Normally I have the best information and feel for it, and will be right. However, I am not 100% sure. And I do not want to be wrong when someone that clearly has a differing opinion. However, I know how much it will hurt afterwards if I don’t pursue my plan and we loose on that.
But we did not have much of that. The key to all of this is good communication to the rest of the crew so that they know the most relevant information behind the decisions. This is one of the areas the navigator need to be conscious about, particularly when very tired as the social skills seem to disappear a bit and all the remaining resources are needed in the analysis process.
Easiest decision in the race?
Most decisions about navigation are easy as long as the information and alternatives are organized and analyzed well. Cannot really come to think of any particularly easy decisions as they are also easy to forget.
Any particular “misstakes” you regret?
Leg 8 to Marstrand. We knew where we wanted to go, but were too tired to keep pushing towards the right hand side along the sand banks. Even though we were the first over to the banks, we did not tack back in soon enough when the shift did not arrive at first. A shame, that underlines the importance of long term thinking and stamina in the VOR.
Any comments on the Telefonica grounding in Marstrand?
I don’t know what happened for them, but it was just after some crew intensive maneuvers so that may have had an impact. Jules and myself had been up in a helicopter the day before to look at that area, and it was reasonably well charted. We had the island on our left, then a few rocks with similar distance between them further off shore so we had to choose a gap. I preferred to stay close to the shore as that was the only visual reference, but we had to stay in the track of the guys ahead not to get into bad air. I told our guys that it was borderline but just stay in the track of the others(..). Then we bore off towards the island when they hit, to be on the side with references. It looked spectacular but not nice. I thought someone would have been injured so we were happy to hear that they were all ok.
The groundings in this race was a reminder not to get too relaxed about it, and also another reminder to be careful with the digital charts – even though at our level and with the small margins necessary to stay in competition we have to trust them more than I like at times. The VO70s are very busy to sail with 10 crew onboard, you would choose many more crew if there was no limitation. So the navigators have to fill in on grinding, carrying sails, helping out on the bow and so on. In Marstrand, the downwind mark was almost at the Island so if you did not get the sails down quickly you were in trouble. Which apparently happened with E4. We had a bad spinnaker drop and normally I am required to help out on that, but in this case I kept looking at the chart and talking to Thomas who was steering.
Sailing around the world into very differently surveyed areas, it is important to have an impression about how well you can trust the charts, which can change quickly. We sailed in some very “dodgy” waters during this race, which I do not prefer, it made it seem more like exploration than racing a few times. Of course the South China Sea, Spratly Islands or “Dangerous Grounds” as it is called, was like this. We played it safe and stayed out of there to lose our lead before the carnage started on leg 4. The Telefonicas seemed to take risks there compared to us. We also sailed through a very shallow area before Fiji in the Pacific. You could see that the chart was very rough with the only marking being a huge blue area of “less than 100 meters depth”, then suddenly the depth went 40-30-20-13 meters and we were reaching along at 15 knots boat speed. What do you do, it may well be as shallow to the right or left. Too unpredictable for my taste..
It also became a bit tense sailing down the Chilean coast before Cape Horn in strong breeze, when suddenly three uncharted small islands showed up on the radar in our path. We had to get rid of the spinnaker quickly which was a bit risky, then reach off for a while to clear the islands while we were trying to spot which was the last one of them to judge whether it was shallow in the extension of that one.

If you had to choose VOR Dream Team? Boat + skipper + crew?
I could put myself in trouble answering this one, so I will not.. I only really know the people I have sailed with so the pool to pick from is really Ericsson 3, Ericsson 4 and some ORMA60 guys. In all teams there were many very good guys.
Boat will be Ericsson 4 of course. Puma is also fast, and Telefonica was smoking except from in some conditions. Ericsson 3 was rumored to be fast but this must be seen in light of some teams wanting to defend their offshore scoreboard a bit, I think. The boat is good but I would not be afraid of sailing against it.

Can you briefly describe your setup and workflow?
WTP2 processor, somewhat adapted to suit our needs. For the VOR I used Deckman, Expedition and some MaxSea. Even Fugawi for some tasks. A few selfmade tools as well as some very nice tools made by our weather/nav/electronics team. Since mid-race, I also used a special charting software more common on ships, to have a second opinion when sailing in shallow waters. That was valuable and I often felt confident enough to cut corners a bit more than others.
Work flow.. Will take a long time to describe, so it has to wait for another time, I am afraid.
With huge amounts of data, and limited time, how do you plan/dispose your time? Sleep management?
Being quite alone on the nav, the starting point is hardly any sleep. Then I take anything I feel that I can. No regular schedule, even though it is good if one can sleep a few times during 24 hrs. It is not only the info that needs to be processed, it is also a very important task to monitor that we are sailing in the correct mode according to what we want to achieve. That involves choice of VMC course, sail selection and monitoring short term wind shifts and performance on deck.
You have developed your own “tool-box”?
If you are talking software, over time I have developed a quite nice “assistant” that help me do advanced calculations and investigate information more directly concerning exactly what I am looking for, and merging this with the detailed performance information gathered. Really saving a lot of time, and making it possible to come one step further in the nav work. It extends further than the limitations of the existing routing software.
In VOR, Fleet Management becomes increasingly important?
Yes, as the level increase, the importance of fleet management increase. Our positioning showed that we were well aware of where the other boats were and what they were doing. Mostly, all the boats have access to the same information and will pick similar routes and are sailing at a very similar speed. Quite often, there is uncertainty about exactly will happen. Even though you think it will be a rightie, how sure? I think you have to do good on average and only take significant fleet risk when you are quite confident about what is happening. Most often, the opportunities to split will not be a great as then everyone would do the same. So the key is to move relative to the fleet – a few degrees more to the right if you wait for the rightie and take those small gains of a few miles every time. They will not make you look like a super smart navigator, maybe more like you have good boat speed, but over this gives a few percent which is a lot, sailing for 130 days or what we did. Typically, we would take some more risk a couple of times per leg. However, the details are also very important so it does not mean that the navigator only sits there reading the three daily news articles that are sent to the boat from Volvo HQ.


What’s your plan for the next few years?
 I have some projects going through the winter, and during 2010 I will decide if I do the VOR as a sailor, shore navigator or not at all. I will keep working with weather routing for other teams, and may as well do some different sailing to what I have done the last years just to learn and open my mind a bit. Like Classe40 or match racing, if I can fit that into the schedule.