Number One – The story of Ichi Ban

Published with permission by Seahorse Magazine. For more information, please visit seahorsemagazine.com

Ichi Ban has a partial Doyle Sails inventory, with ongoing development in the Cableless and Structured Luff sails. 

If you race offshore in Australia there is one boat that you will (always) have to get past to have any chance of winning. Rob Kothe talks to Ichi Ban skipper Matt Allen and his long-time performance analyst and race navigator Will Oxley.

The 628-mile Sydney Hobart Race is for many defined by a famous mark rounding just 42nm from the Hobart finish line. After the ocean passage down the New South Wales coast, Bass Strait and Tasmanian coast, Tasman Island is the sentinel to another wind world. Storm Bay can be full of wind shadows, and the Derwent River winds routinely die at night. Most Sydney Hobart sailors have sad stories to tell about their podium placing at Tasman Island being snatched randomly away from them. In the past four years, Ichi Ban has been the name of the leading boat on IRC handicap at Tasman Island, and she has managed to convert two of those into overall race wins.

Ichi Ban’s owner, Matt Allen, now a veteran of 30 Hobart races, is a member of the Australian Olympic Committee, outgoing president of Australian Sailing and former CYCA Commodore. Owner of a string of racing yachts called Ichi Ban (it means number one in Japanese), Allen started the series with a gold-coloured Farr 52 in 2002 and launched into the TP52 class in 2015 when he purchased Niklas Zennström’s Rán, a Judel-Vrolijk design built-in 2011 by Green Marine. In 2016 she was leading the race on handicap at Tasman Light. But she too died in Storm Bay.

Allen stepped up, commissioning a new offshore-tailored TP52. Designed by Botin, built by Ximo Lopez’s Longitud Cero, the highly regarded TP52 builder in Castellón, Spain, Allen’s ‘Hobart special’ arrived in Sydney in September of that year. The plan worked. Immediately fast out of the box, the new Ichi Ban led the 2017 Hobart fleet at Tasman Island… but this time holding on to win overall when the breeze held up to the end.

In 2018 Allen skippered Ichi Ban to wins in the Australian Yachting Championships, Brisbane to Gladstone, Flinders Islet, Newcastle Bass Island and Bird Island races, and the CYCA’s Blue Water Point score. Ichi Ban was also named RORC Yacht of the Year, the first Australia yacht to win the award. A meticulous campaigner, through 2018 Allen and his crew had made well over 250 separate modifications to their yacht to improve her speed and her offshore reliability.

Come Hobart time Ichi Ban was the overall handicap leader at Tasman again, and she held that lead until the very mouth of the Derwent River. But the Reichel/Pugh 66 Alive, the 2018 overall winner, sailed the final 11 miles from the Iron Pot to the Derwent River finish line in an hour. In the fast dying breeze the same distance took Ichi Ban six hours, dropping her to fifth overall.

In 2019 Ichi Ban’s wins included Division 1 of the Australian Yachting Championships, Adelaide Port Lincoln Race (also taking line honours), the Brisbane Hamilton Island, Flinders Islet and Newcastle Bass Island races. Those performances were enough to tip the balance to being awarded 2019 World Sailing Boat of the Year.

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Two from three, Matt Allen’s Ichi Ban glides towards Hobart for her second IRC win in the last three editions of the 600nm classic.

Thence to Hobart 2019, leading again at Tasman Island. But this time a new breeze was in by the time Ichi Ban – and nine other boats in her division – arrived in the river and she took the overall win for the second time in three races. And Allen and his latest Hobart winner are not done yet. ‘We are assuming there will be a 2020 Sydney to Hobart Race starting on Boxing Day, frankly it will be scary if that is not the case…’ he explains rather grimly.

‘There’s plenty of life left in this boat for our purposes. We built her to sail in the ocean, not for flat-water short-course racing. So down below it’s a much stronger boat than the Med TP52s. But crucially it’s much drier too. You simply wouldn’t get too far in the Bass Strait in a TP52 designed for European conditions, the crew just wouldn’t be able to handle the amount of water coming in. ‘The top three or four TP52s down here are now all very close to each other in performance if you are trying to hold a lane off a tight start line. Maybe the latest hull forms are a little better then, but when it gets to the ocean that advantage is just not there. The hull form of Quest, the Hobart winner in 2008, and the 2015 TP52 Balance is better when it is rough they become very competitive.

‘Sailing these boats as close as you can to 100 per cent is hard in the ocean, so being able to always replicate the best sails and angles for windspeeds and sea state just helps. But if you can do that and you have the boat in the right position, and you have a crew like ours who have been sailing together for ever, like Gordon Maguire, Ant Merrington, myself and Will Oxley and in recent times Rob Greenhalgh, in that case you are hard to beat. ‘For the ocean races we’ve previously been looking at the 1% gains, but we also need to look at the 0.1% improvements.

Ichi Ban 3
The skipper’s reward for an adequate performance as the most successful big boat team in Australia take another Hobart win.

There is a constant evolution of the 52s, from the Super Series but also from the offshore ocean racing we are doing and there is a long way to go. Especially when you get to the reaching gear, where everyone is experimenting now with sails that have quite narrow optimum wind angles and strength bands.

‘Actually, progress there is slow. There are not often the reaching conditions to test, and you can’t carry too many of these sails. Plus, the Super Series does not help because the races are all upwind-downwind. There is still a lot of development to go with these 52s for other courses.

‘Meanwhile, the reason these boats go so well against the fleet is that there is this constant evolutionary development that does not exist with the one-off IRC boats. ‘Our boat does not have a major weakness, but the others are closing in. There are 14 TP52s here now, all with very similar ratings. With trough lines, when you are slowed right down or parked, then boats seven or eight miles behind you that you had easily on time are suddenly right beside you and you must wriggle away again to get back the 15 or 30 minutes you need.

‘In the last Hobart Envy Scooters (my 2016 Ichi Ban) and Quest both closed on us like that. At Tasman Island Gweilo, with the same rating as us, who had been as much as 10 miles back, closed to within two miles, but we wriggled away for a win. And now… well, we started our 2020 Hobart preparation just a few days into January but the runway has got a lot shorter so the pressure will be on.’ One of the key weapons in the Ichi Ban arsenal is Will Oxley, a skipper/navigator and marine biologist who has completed more than 260,000nm of ocean racing including five round-the-world races and 19 Sydney Hobarts, seven of them with Allen including the last five on the trot. Oxley skippered Compaq in the BT Global Challenge 2000/01, for the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race he was the navigator aboard Camper (Emirates Team New Zealand). He was the navigator for Team Alvimedica in the 2014-15 Volvo Race, the same time he published an e-book entitled Modern Race Navigation: Expedition Software in Action (updated in 2017). In 2019 Oxley was navigator aboard the Volvo 70 Wizard when she won the Fastnet Race and back on Ichi Ban in the Hobart for yet another win.

In lockdown he is embarking on a new book, The Role of the Navigator. Oxley provided this insight into a part of Ichi Ban’s winning formula. ‘We started on our preparation for the 2020 race just a few days after our 2019 win.

In terms of sail selection and planning, for us in a typical year that is a continuous year-round process. Now this year we will be doing much more historic data analysis and much less sailing. ‘On Ichi Ban we use Expedition which is logging data every second. We break that data into 30-second or one-minute blocks. We discard data that is bad, and then we steadily build up the database. We look at the sails we had up, and we focus on areas where we think there is a crossover between sails, and we decide which sail performs best at which angle. So then we end up with a sail chart. ‘As we have more sails than we can take we focus on the overlaps and which sail can cover another. Then we keep drilling down to make a final decision on just which sails we will take for a race based on the specific forecasts. We spend the whole year doing that – with the new generations of sails the crossovers are getting more extensive. But every sail still has a sweet spot, so to make good decisions you have to focus quite narrowly on just how much time you are likely to use a particular sail in that sweet spot.

‘A polar, being technical, is a set of nice curves, but of course now they are not curving, they are very spiky – much more spiky than before, in fact. And every one of these calls relies on the quality of the data we have.

‘On Ichi Ban we use three different software packages which are now well integrated: FaRo, the instrument package, which decodes all the instrument data, managing maths relations and outputting numbers on the displays; Expedition, the English-speaking world’s default navigation software; and KND, the sailing performance analysis tool. ‘Anything we can put a sensor on we do. Plus there are manual things that are going on, that I input into the KND onboard assistant, such as a change of sails, or the new ones just hoisted. Before the race I also input things like the number of mast shims, where the base of the rig is.

On Ichi Ban we can change the mast rake quickly, for which we take a rating penalty and because of that it’s even more important we understand what is working best there. ‘Then there are multiple pressure sensors wherever there is a hydraulic function, on top of which we use a lot of string potentiometers.’ (These ‘string pots’ are variable resistors with a spring-loaded string, the resistance of the device depending on how much the string is displaced. String potentiometers were originally developed as a simple way to measure large displacements such as the movement of aircraft ailerons, rudders and flaps.) Oxley again: ‘The standard 5-volt string pots can be calibrated with our instrument software like WTP or FaRo.

Ichi Ban 2
Like his successful (very) turboed TP52 the last Ichi Ban but one was another Botin design – this one a custom-built 60-footer.

On Ichi Ban the position of the forestay and therefore the rake is determined with the string pot, which is recalibrated before each race, as is the pot on the running backstay deflector. We also trialled string pots as rudder sensors, but we now use a solid-state sensor because in that instance the string pots seemed to require constant recalibration. ‘Positional data and wind velocities are critical. Along with most of the top TP52s we now use a Quadrans fibre-optic gyrocompass – expensive, but the difference in the quality of the information is extraordinary. These units are now recording at 100 hertz, 100 times a second, recording trim and heel. That is a big step forward. ‘In a program like FaRo, when the boat pitches forward and the top of the rig has gone that much more because of the moment, the Quadrans is now doing the windspeed correction so you end up with an incredibly stable wind speed and direction – even in very unstable sea conditions. ‘If you use a standard compass, which might cost a fifteenth of the cost of the Quadrans, there are inherent errors, for instance when the boat heels there is an immediate error of 1-2° on every point, whereas the gyrocompass is completely unaffected by these things. ‘To analyse our actual sailing performance we use KND.

The KND team have proven experience in the America’s Cup, Volvo Race, Vendée Globe, Sydney Hobarts and Fastnets. Their expertise in combining CFD, VPP and data analysis is exceptional and the working relationship we have there is very good. ‘From the data I do a lot of analysis and KND can do more. They develop tables that say things like the boat is performing best with 23° of heel, with zero trim. Or the performance is terrible when you were too bow up without enough heel in the boat. Or the boat performed better when the rig was further aft… Invaluable stuff. ‘Over the year these polars are further refined. And then of course bigger things might change… For example, will we carry a whisker pole to Hobart this year with the new IRC penalty? That will depend on the test certificates which we are currently working through. ‘For the race you must declare an IRC certificate around 18 December, well before you have a good forecast. If the pole-penalty is 5-6 points, as suspected, in a race that is more windward-leeward than anything else – it’s probably not going to be worth carrying… ‘But then there are the knock-on considerations.

We are looking at just how to deal with that in our sail programme for the race, because it’s quite a gap if you don’t use the whisker pole. Now you won’t be able to have a jib set wide? ‘This year, with a truncated sailing programme and lots of pressure, this sort of high-quality analysis will be essential if we are to win the Sydney to Tasman Island race again. And then have our hat in the ring for Hobart…’

Ichi Ban 5
Two from three, Matt Allen’s Ichi Ban glides towards Hobart for her second IRC win in the last three editions of the 600nm classic.

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