VOLVO OCEAN RACE: Meet the man responsible for analysing all meteorological data before and during the Volvo Ocean Race
by Julia Brandon
Assessing the intensity of different legs, identifying potential weather hazards, and manipulating large volumes of meteorological information into statistics to be used by the rest of the organization. Working with a range of weather conditions sourced from data that captures climatic changes over the course of eight years, he simulates how each weather type will impact the race, and compiles his statistics from those findings.
During the event itself – the 2014-15 race begins in October – he is in charge of safety, running the race control and proof tracking. This means overseeing the smooth running of the race, and predicting what lies ahead as competitors sail, explaining what is likely to happen on the water. In the event of a breakdown or mishap, Gonzalo is an active member of the crisis response team.
In short, his is a pivotal role. People’s lives depend on him getting it right every time. The operations team rely on his data to make critical decisions, such as the duration of stopovers, the visibility forecast for the various legs, and even the best time to start the race. There is little margin for error, and he does it all by himself, relying solely on his own expertise, software and, of course, years of experience.
But Gonzalo has earned the right to feel confident about his own abilities. A passionate sailor himself, not to mention enthusiastic cyclist and triathlete, he grew up in Alicante in Spain with the Volvo Ocean Race in his blood. “It’s been deep in my heart since I was a child. It has everything that I like — not only my interest in the technical side of sailing, but also my love of nature. It pushes your body and mind to their limits.”
Gonzalo spent his university years studying electrical engineering while sailing professionally in the summer. Upon graduation, he landed a navigational role with the America’s Cup team Desafio Español, which gave him four years of solid professional inshore sailing experience, working with the latest technology. Not content with his lot, however, he realized that in order to improve his offshore sailing he needed a better understanding of the weather, and opted to go back to university to specialize in meteorology.
“I’m analytical and like to understand everything I face, and that only comes from knowledge and science,” says Gonzalo. The decision soon paid off when a friend secured sponsorship to compete in a round-the-world race, and Gonzalo ended up coaching him on how to navigate to a podium finish.
There are times, however, when even the best navigator is at a loss. During the 2011-12 race and only 48 hours after the first leg in Alicante, two boats dropped out due to an unprecedented cyclone-strength storm in the Mediterranean. “We had expected it,” says Gonzalo, “but it proved to be much stronger than we thought.”
Of course, his role is to track and predict the weather conditions. Only in extreme circumstances, such as being presented with large blocks of moving ice or a tropical cyclone would an alternative course for the race be devised. But this is not done lightly due to the risk of unfair advantage, nor is it something Gonzalo believes the skippers would pay much heed to. And that is one of his key characteristics – he clearly loves his job, but first and foremost he is a thrill-seeking sailor.
“What I do isn’t just about deciphering information, but putting yourself in the skin of the sailor and visualizing what they face, and the implications of what they feel. Good experience in sailing is relevant, and good meteorology skills are relevant – but you can’t do one without understanding the other.”