October 16, 2012

Grounded in cyberspace

I RAN AGROUND yesterday on the African coast at the southern end of Western Sahara.  Despite the inhospitable desert surroundings, it wasn’t the worst grounding I’ve ever experienced because I could get free at the click of a button.  Or so I thought.

Actually, it took two clicks of the button but I didn’t find that out for about an hour, by which time I’d lost 1,000 places in the Virtual Vendée Globe practice race, from France down to the equator.

I joined the race late, as usual, and  the French computer inserted me into the field at place number 14,399. Two days later, when the field of skippers had swollen to more than 27,000, I had wormed my way through the mob into position 9,000-and-something. But yesterday I was back to 10,000-and-plenty.

I had found a narrow channel of stronger winds alongside the West African coast and was busily jibing down the windy lane while my competitors, overwhelmingly French, were sleeping back at home and their boats plowed along on fixed courses under autopilot.

But I cut things too fine and grounded for exactly 68 seconds before jibing out to sea again. I set the new course, making 16 knots in a breeze of 17.8 knots, and then I went for an hour’s walk in the woods.

When I got back to my computer it was telling me that I’d now been aground for an hour and 68 seconds.  I should have checked before I went out, because while I was walking, about 1,000 French boats came trundling past me.

This is a computer game in which small errors add up to enormous changes in position — and the rivalry is intense. Each of the 20 entrants for the real Vendée Globe singlehanded round-the-world race, which starts next month, was given a boat in this virtual game, and I found myself among a couple of them before my grounding.  But I learned to my surprise that when Vincent Riou, sailing PRB, was about 6 miles to starboard on a parallel course of 211 degrees, in the same wind of 17.8 knots, he was doing 12.6 knots while I was doing 12.1 knots. At first I thought the French computer was being kind to the stars of the real Vendée Globe, giving them a half-knot advantage to prevent loss of face, but I later discovered that you can buy speed in this game.  If you’re prepared to flash your credit card, you can buy a special suit of sails not available to freeloaders like me.  There are other paid advantages, too, such as autopilots and automatic sail changes to suit wind conditions.

None of this matters, I guess, if you and a bunch of friends agree to be freeloaders with no paid privileges, and simply race against each other, but the commercial aspect has rather put me off entering for the full-length Virtual Vendée, a game that lasts about two months.

No matter.  I’ll stick it out to the finish of this practice race, which ends at the equator, about two weeks away.  Last time I looked, the leading boat, Ricard 34, was 454 miles ahead of me, and the Vendée Globe experts were trailing along behind him.  The first of the "experts" was Safran Sailing Team, coming 139th, and Samantha Davies, one of three British round-the-worlders, was third among the experts and 621th (as the French computer puts it) overall.

If you haven’t tried racing under sail on a computer against 30,000 opponents, you might like to take a look at the official race site.  There’s no charge to play simply, and you might get hooked.

Today’s Thought
The only competition worthy a wise man is with himself.
— Mrs. Anna Jameson, Memoirs and Essays: Washington Allston

“What would you be after having there in that bag, O’Flaherty?”
“How many?”
“I’m not saying.”
“Well then I’ll guess how many — and you can give me a prize if I’m right.”
“I don’t have a prize. But I tell you what — if you get it right you can have both of them.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Been hooked on VR for many years, ever since a Whitbread race a few years back, Right now I'm going cold turkey. Been clean & sober for a few months now....