Marcel Van Triest: “We still know very little about the ice in the Southern Ocean”

The Barcelona World Race meteorologist knows the secrets of the seas of the Southern Hemisphere better than most, having sailed through them in five circumnavigations of the globe. As onshore router his directions led to Banque Populaire V's Jules Verne Trophy achievement, an experience which involved extensive use of the latest satellite ice detection technology.

Interview by Santi Serrat

Interviews FEB 2, 2013 01:00

Marcel Van Triest

Marcel Van Triest is one of the most experienced round the world sailors. As navigator he took part in the 1989/90 and 1993/94 Whitbreads, as well as the Volvo Ocean Race 1997/98, 2001/02 and 2005/06. As onshore router, Van Triest was responsible for both of Banque Populaire V's attempts at the Jules Verne Trophy, successfully taking the record last year with Loïck Peyron and Joan Vila: an impressive 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds to circle the globe, covering 29,002 nautical miles at average speeds of 26.51 knots.

The Dutchman, who is based in Palma de Mallorca (Spain), is one of the most highly-qualified ocean navigators and meteorologists and is an expert on the Southern Ocean, the darkest and most dangerous passage on any round the world regatta course. Marcel planned the ice detection service for the last edition of the Barcelona World Race and used the same tools for Banque Populaire V with the highest degree of precision ever achieved in the Southern Hemisphere. He is therefore the ideal person to have on board at the upcoming round table debate: Sailing in the Southern Ocean: Ice Gates and Climate Change, to discuss the issue of ice detection and safety. The debate takes place on 5th February 2013 at the Barcelona World Race Interpretation Centre and will be streamed live on the Barcelona World Race website. 

Has the strategic approach to round the world regattas changed much over the past few decades?

Yes, enormously. First, there have been huge developments in weather prediction systems. Furthermore, they are now digital: the famous GRIB files. The first files of this kind date back to the tail end of the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties and now we've also got the routing programmes which also date back to around the same time. The progress made in on-board IT has also been enormous, and we have seen spectacular leaps made in terms of the potential of on-board calculation.

What influence has the design of the boats in relative speed terms had with respect to the meteorological systems?

The change there has also been enormous. In my first Whitbread we sailed at 9 knots upwind and 12 downwind. In those conditions you prefer to go for the shortest possible route. Now the potential for speed is so huge that it allows sailors to look at the meteorological systems, despite the route being longer and that has of course had a big impact on strategy. 

To what degree would you say that the ice gates set up in the most recent Vendée Globe and Barcelona World Race have altered the approach to strategy and tactics? 

Incredibly. I think that they alter the options by 95%, if we compare them with a free course. The gates limit the descent south and mean that the boats get close to the northern high pressure systems (St Helena, Southern Indian Ocean and South Pacific). They have little room therefore for strategy which becomes limited to the climb down and up the Atlantic. The gates force the boats to apply fleet tactics and to take decisions based on the positioning of other boats, and that is all done on a short view basis. 

Ice gates, waypoints or 'no-go' zones like we saw in the last Volvo Ocean Race? What do you think is the best way to provide maximum safety for the regatta fleet in the face of the danger posed by Southern Ocean ice? 

It's not easy to say. The waypoints don't really make much sense, as we've seen. The 'no-go' zones are similar and are, in fact, a line of waypoints and have the added inconvenience of giving very little margin for manoeuvring: if one sails close to the limitation line and a storm moves in which would favour you if you were further south, what do you do? What about if there is a man overboard? If you cross it then, are you disqualified? Do you get a timed penalty? The advantage of a 'no-go' zone is that organisers are able to plan safety measurers more effectively. The gates give you some degree of flexibility of choice, although you have some free part of the route in between where the boats can climb down to very dangerous latitudes, as we saw in the most recent edition of the Vendée Globe. I'm not sure... a couple of years ago I was more in favour of the gates, but now I believe more in the 'no-go' zones, although in this case I think that the penalty system needs to be very clear to all.

iceberg B-15

When was the first time you used an ice detection service? Have you seen an evolution in these services up until your most recent experience as round the world router with Banque Populaire V? 

The first time was back in the Volvo 2005, but the system was at a very primitive stage. The ones used in the most recent Vendée Globe and Barcelona World Race are far more highly-evolved. Right now the programmes designed to work with the imaging are becoming more and more accurate and there's also the appearance of radar altimetry, although it still works at fairly grainy resolutions. For now it's a matter of money: the more you pay, the better the results obtained, especially now that the ENVISAT satellite which provided imaging for scientific use remains unused since last summer, after ten years of service, which is about the average life of a satellite of this kind. It's all in the hands of commercial operators now. The highest level of satellite detection I've ever employed was with Banque Populaire V. As it was a single boat 'just in time' is possible, but with a fleet of boats, all spread out over the ocean, that kind of precision is just impossible.

With Banque Populaire V you had an encounter with the famous B-15 iceberg... 

It was very interesting. I worked with five screens receiving all sorts of information and I managed to reach the point where I was getting ice positions in almost real time. Of course, that was possible because I was routing the course of the boat and could request forecasts for the areas the boat would sail through in advance. I repeat that with a fleet, that's just not possible. 

Up to what point has climate change made the problem worse? Have you had any confirmation of it doing so over the past few years in the Southern Ocean?

I have no idea. We have been detecting ice for five to six years now, so that means that we don't have a defined climatology yet. What we can say for sure is that Antarctica is generating more ice, but maybe it's melting faster? We don't know, and in fact we know very little about Southern Ocean Ice. The issue is that the melting of an iceberg depends more on waves than on the temperature of the water. It's the ice-cube in a glass case and if you shake the glass the ice melts more quickly... and it also depends on the shape of the ice. There have been very few scientific investigations on the subject. Certainly with Banque Populaire V I was surprised to find icebergs in waters of 10ºC and it's by no means rare now to find icebergs far from their origin, but I must reiterate the fact that we just don't have enough information about this yet. 

The danger of ice leads us to UFOs. According to statistics, the risk of a collision with an object of a marine mammal is far higher than that of crashing into a growler. What can be done about the danger of collisions? Can on board detection systems, like the ones already trialled, be useful in the immediate future? 

Current satellite detection systems can't detect objects less than 100 metres thick. Well, you could do that, but only by pouring in huge amounts of money to do so, so it's just not practical. The problem is the speed of the boat. For example, if you are on a bicycle and you are heading for a deer on the road, you can swerve to avoid it... but if you are travelling at a speed by car, the situation changes and so do your reaction times. For boats it is the same. If you are solo and have the auto-pilot on? What reaction time do you really have? If you're pushing forward at 20 knots, almost none... The same goes for sea mammals. During the Volvo we started up the motor to make some noise so that they would move out of the way. There are many theories out there about what to do, but none of them are completely safe.