Sailing: a conversation with Marcel Van Triest, the onshore router of the Maxi Banque Populaire XI

Friday, 12 november 2021

Marcel Van Triest is the onshore weather router of the Maxi Banque Populaire XI currently competing in the Transat Jacques Vabre transatlantic race. A highly respected sailor in his own right and an outstanding meteorologist, he tells us about his contribution to the strategic decisions required in a race of this kind.

Marcel Van Triest has been working for many years as an onshore weather router for the different boats in Team Banque Populaire and has been working more particularly with Armel Le Cléac’h, the skipper of the Ultim-class trimaran. In the world of ocean racing he is one of the most highly respected weather routers, a behind-the-scenes function that plays such a key role in a race like the Transat Jacques Vabre where weather routing services are allowed.

A job that’s been practiced for a very long time…

While Armel Le Cléac’h and Kévin Escoffier set sail to defy the North Atlantic waves on Banque Populaire XI along with the entire fleet of competitors in the Transat Jacques Vabre, one man is taking part in the same race but not on board a racing yacht. He will remain on land in an apartment somewhere on the Balearic Islands. Marcel Van Triest is Team Banque Populaire’s onshore weather router working hand-in-hand with the two skippers to ensure they keep to the best possible route in light of their boat’s capabilities, the prevailing weather conditions, the sea, the sailors’ fatigue, etc. Fundamentally, it’s a job that’s been practiced for a very long time. In the past, the sailor in charge of navigation sailed with the boat and kept a close watch on the sky and stars… attentive to all the signs he needed to guide the boat’s trajectory, the choice of sails, etc.

It’s basically still the same activity, except that the sailor responsible for scrutinizing the heavens is now watching a computer screen in an office. “It’s exactly that,” explains Marcel Van Triest, “the underlying principles remain the same. It’s like a surgeon a century ago compared to a surgeon today: the tools have changed but an operation is still an operation.” And this is true even if climate change is disrupting established working patterns and interfering with navigation work. “It’s interfering to the extent that certain situations have become less reliable. Routing is not climate science, it’s weather forecasting… but we’re seeing more extreme weather events.”

The massive collection of weather data is something recent. “The observation of sea conditions on a global scale goes back just 30 years,” explains Marcel Van Triest. “In Holland, the data compiled on land goes back barely one century… We don’t know what the weather was like for the Romans. So we try to compile observations to provide input for models in order to anticipate and understand climate change. For example, we study old captains’ logbooks from the 16th century in search of their observations. For example, we see that on January 3, 1512, the captain changed his sail; so we then ask an expert in old rigging to help us understand what that means as far as wind strength is concerned…”

Extensive experience as a sailor

Marcel Van Triest experienced at first hand these changes from onboard observations to the mastery of computer files and algorithms. His career itself is an illustration of these upheavals. He first took to sailing in his native Netherlands: “In 1989, I started to sail in France. At that time, I was studying economics in Rotterdam, with a specialization in finance. So I was more of a scientist, something that would prove to be important for the future. I was used to compiling and assimilating a lot of information…” Marcel Van Triest then took part in his first competitions, such as the Whitbread race (editor’s note: a crewed round-the-world stage race).

“In those days, it was still possible for a student to take part.” He was asked by the French skipper Alain Gabbay to join the crew of an Italian maxi yacht. “He sent me on a sailing course with Jean-Yves Bernot in La Rochelle. I didn’t speak a word of French at the time. He was doing a routing; it was like an internship for me. He must have thought that this new guy wasn’t too stupid…” And that’s how Marcel Van Triest joined the French team competing in the Mumm Admiral’s Cup in 1991… a team that would go on to win the race, the equivalent of the world championship in ocean racing. This victory still remains today one of the great achievements of French sailing. Jean-Yves Bernot then served as chief navigator of the entire team comprised of three boats. The young Marcel was clearly a good student. “This triumph launched my career as a professional sailor,” he explains. Marcel Van Triest then witnessed the beginnings of technology installed on boats. “The first computers arrived in 1987/88. The Maxsea Company designed the first routing software accessible to everyone. Until then, it was only available in institutions for large oil companies.”

Marcel Van Triest became a recognized sailor as he gained experience race after race. “I was doing a lot of regattas at the time, sailing 250 to 300 days a year. And then, in the winter of 97/98, I was on a stopover in Brazil when I was asked to do the weather routing of a big trimaran for Franck Cammas. This was my first onshore routing experience.” And that’s how Marcel Van Triest came to specialize and become a reference figure for weather routing in the world of ocean racing. He describes his discipline as follows: “Weather routing is based on an algorithm that determines the optimum route to be taken in light of the available wind forecasts and the speed potential of the boat given a certain wind strength and a certain wind angle.”

Technological revolution

Of course, the profession has evolved a great deal since those early days. “When I started sailing, it took a lot of effort and know-how just to know where you were. Nowadays, any cell phone can give you that information immediately. In 1989, the first GPS device in Holland was a black box weighing 30 kilos that gave a position for three hours a day at the very most. Now it’s a $3 microchip… There were no weather files. We had maps drawn up by weather stations that we received by radio that were barely legible… In certain parts of the globe, there was no information at all. In the Pacific, three boats would provide information that we’d use to draw up a weather map. Today we have satellite pictures; we know the surface wind speeds… In 1989, we invested in a computer; it had 4 megabytes of RAM and cost 20,000 euros…”

For this Transat Jacques Vabre race, Marcel Van Triest benefits from considerable resources to help him route Armel Le Cléac’h on the Maxi Banque Populaire XI. But is it still possible for weather routers to distinguish themselves and give full expression to their navigational skills? “Absolutely, because of the limited reliability of the models; they’re good for three days but you can’t count on them for longer than that, as they’re liable to diverge from observed conditions. That’s when we have to define what is probable. We try to understand what constitutes a stable weather situation and what can disturb it.” This is when Marcel Van Triest’s maritime background, all the experience he’s acquired at sea, make the difference compared to weather routers who lack his experience as a sailor. “Above all,” explains Marcel, “the difference made by a career like mine is not so much in terms of knowledge about the weather as in terms of the psychological relationship I can have with the skipper. He knows I’ve been through the same things; when I tell him it’s going to be okay or it’s going to be very difficult, he trusts me. Whereas it’s harder for an engineer fresh out of the office to be convincing.”

A long-standing relationship with Banque Populaire and Armel Le Cléac’h

“I have worked with weather engineers and I realized that I knew a little in a lot of different areas whereas they are highly specialized. But between saying ‘tomorrow it’s going to rain’ and saying ‘here’s the most likely weather scenario, but if this line of convergence develops, we’ll move into an outlook that’s less likely but not impossible.’ This is a different way of looking at the weather. You can also have two contradictory models, for example, providing 5-day forecasts for a given geographical position with one announcing a belt of low pressure and the other forecasting high pressure… But I still have to decide where the boat should go…”

The weather router consequently has to make fundamental choices that will frequently decide the outcome of the race, without forgetting that the lives of the men on board the racing yacht are also at stake. “This is something we’re well aware of…” confirms Marcel Van Triest. “The critical thing is the choice you make in terms of the risk/time gain ratio. If I go all out, I’ll win the race but there’s a greater risk of breaking the boat… The question is to know how much danger you’re prepared to accept. And then you have to be careful not to burn out the skipper; you have to manage his fatigue. In solo (or double-handed) sailing, you start with a skipper whose batteries are full. If you, the weather router, ask too much of him, you’ll drain his batteries too quickly. I can ask him two or three times to make a special effort but not every day… It’s a constant dialogue between us.”

Marcel Van Triest has developed a long-standing attachment to Team Banque Populaire. He contributed to breaking the North Atlantic record with Loïc Peyron, to the victory in the Route du Rhum when Loïc replaced Armel Le Cléac’h…

“It’s important to ensure continuity when working with a team like Team Banque Populaire. A project like this is a collective effort; the weather router’s job is important but so is that of the person who made the hull’s composite material. Every player counts.” But it goes without saying that his relationship with the skipper is fundamental to the outcome of a race like this. “I’ve been working with Armel for a very long time,” he says. “We’ve gone through a lot together, which has built trust between us. Our relationship is based on mutual respect. It’s important to know how the other person feels. For example, when I say something, he has to realize that it’s very important.”

During the race, Marcel will stay on land in the Balearic Islands but remain directly in contact with Armel Le Cléac’h and Kévin Escoffier, just as if he were physically present with them on the boat. “I have all the information about the boat. I’ll be living at the same pace as them. In a race like this, I’ll be sleeping for a maximum of 45 minutes at a time.” He’ll just be eating better than the two sailors. “That’s by no means certain…” says the weather router with a smile.

This close relationship between the sailors, both on land and on the water, will again guide Banque Populaire XI across the Atlantic as they base their decisions on a host of data points but also on their flair and keen sense of navigation. And, ultimately, this will make all the difference…  just as it has always done!

Follow the race and the position of the Maxi Banque Populaire XI on the website and the social networks @VoileBanquePopulaire

Photo caption: Marcel Van Triest with Armel Le Cléac’h and Kévin Escoffier