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Changing the face of your sailing gear: Zhik's Volvo Ocean Race journey

by Liz Rushall 10 Oct 2018 14:00 BST
The temperature drops on board Team AkzoNobel during Volvo Ocean Race Leg 9 from Newport to Cardiff © Konrad Frost / Volvo Ocean Race

The challenge:

Setting out to work with two Volvo Ocean Race teams was always going to be a challenge for Zhik's first official involvement with the race. Yet, it was the pinnacle opportunity to put the company's ocean yachting range to the ultimate test.

Having completed considerable fabric research for the offshore Isotak fabric, followed by garment design testing with Vendee, Figaro and other offshore teams, the Volvo was the next big step up. The chance to test out completely new design concepts, in an intensive and extreme laboratory. To tweak, change and adapt, and use the in-depth learnings in Zhik's new ranges.

In the Spring of 2017, Zhik became the Official Clothing Partner for both team AkzoNobel and Dongfeng Race Team, the overall winners of the 2017/18 Race.

Working with one Volvo Race team is a big project. To work with two, as a first foray into the event, was no small mountain to scale.

It was a huge journey for the entire company. Back in the spring of 2017, no one could have anticipated the ultimate accolade received at the end of the Race:

"Thanks for your support and all you have done to improve our gear. We all have been impressed!"
Charles Caudrelier, overall winning skipper, Dongfeng Race Team

The task:

For both the Teams, the brief was about helping their crews find the extra edge. The Volvo 65's are brutal machines, with little or no cockpit protection for the crews. The new course was longer, with more time in the Southern Oceans. And the boats quickly proved to be even wetter than expected.

Luke Molloy, Helmsman & sail trimmer on teamAkzoNobel explains: "We realised that the race was 1.5 times the length of any previous Volvo Ocean Race. So we allocated enough garments per sailor to get through the extra distance. VOR sailors are extremely tough on the gear so we knew that we would need a few sets per sailor. We also worked with Zhik on refining the zip on hood and other headwear to try and reduce the garments needed by making them multi purpose, covering a wide range of conditions."

In addition to the ocean gear, a complete range of products received additional development for the race including boots, thermals, and light weight waterproofs.

The approach:

Much work had gone into the development of Isotak X before the Race started. Zhik's design and development team, who all come from a range of industrial and retail design backgrounds, were in their element challenging the 'norm' for sailing! With strong technical and outdoor backgrounds they are able to 'think freely outside the box', without preconceived ideas from being too immersed as a hardened sailor.

The same process used for Olympic team garment development was adopted. Bart Milczarchzyk, Head of Global Design and the team spent considerable time listening to both Volvo Teams to understand their requirements and priorities for performance clothing. New design concepts are shared, gaining input and verification with the athletes before extensive testing, and then ultimately going into production for sailors worldwide.

In addition to the obvious need of keeping warm and dry, both teams were focused on reducing weight. Mulitple purpose garments, that would give versatility across different climates and conditions, would mean less gear needed on board. Improving protective headwear functionality was key too, to improve all round vision, safety and hearing.

It was through this period that the concept for the adaptable Hydrovision hood and collar, an idea that had been on the Zhik design board for a while, became a reality.

Meanwhile, the development team were also working on details such as neck/wrist seals, base layer wicking, head and hand protection and foot/ankle support, as well as doing their normal day job.

The foundations:

Over the last half decade, Zhik has invested significant time and effort in the research and development that led to the launch of Zhik's Aroshell (coastal) fabric and Isotak (offshore/ocean) fabric that have been used as they expanded their range into technical performance yachting gear.

Typical of Zhik's innovation approach, the team were not content to accept standard, industry fabrics without thorough analysis. Instead, after considerable in-house testing, they took a selection of fabrics to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

It's well known that there is a lack of consistent industry standard tests for waterproof fabrics. So, the University undertook an independent scientific project to create a robust testing process to measure waterproofness and durability over a period of time.

The tests simulated vigorous wear, accelerating the process that happens on board yachts. Throughout the test, the fabrics were re-tested for waterproofness at regular time intervals. The results, which are published in the Textile Research Journal 2017 showed that Zhik's Isotak X fabric is four times more 'durable waterproof' than other fabrics. The Aroshell fabric came out as three times more waterproof over the same extended time periods.

The learnings:

With the knowledge that they had the right fabrics and materials for the job, the next steps were the development for what is undoubtedly, the most extreme yacht racing event. It's the ultimate test for any marine gear and equipment, and one that many leisure sailors will never fully experience.

Before and during the race was a continuous process of development and learning. With the team working hard back in Australia, Zhik also had on the ground support at each stopover. Plus, members of the design team flying in to meet the crews as they arrived at each port.

Working so closely with the VOR crews meant Zhik could accelerate the design and testing process, compressing what would normally have been about two years of development work into a much shorter time span.

Milczarczyk recalls: "The VOR teams created the catalyst and we had multiple prototypes out there testing our concepts during the lead up to the race. This continued throughout various legs. In contrast, some other suppliers were delivering 'off the shelf' gear just before the start, and repairing on the way round."

The intense on water laboratory, both in training and the early stages of the race, threw up additional detailed requirements and opportunities for improvements on the go including:

  • Night visibility - both teams identified that visibility of the crew at night could be improved. Gear was modified during the race to include high vis panels and bio-motion reflective marks. These showed the crew's movement on deck, and if they are facing away or towards you to aid communication at night.

  • Countering the deck grip - the crews were changing their deck grip at every stop over, which provided the best platform for testing and verifying new abrasive reinforcing materials.

  • Water repellent shirts and more – Avlare®, Zhik's highly water repellent technical stretch shirt fabric was proven to have far more applications than originally anticipated. Many new styles were tried and worn throughout the warmer legs.

The opportunity to learn about fabrics in action compared to in the lab was also immense. Isotak X durable waterproof credentials certainly seemed to bear out the laboratory tests. Simeon Tienpont wore only two Isotak X smocks throughout the entire race.

The innovations:

During the race, Dongfeng Race Team requested a light breathable smock for use in the Northern Hemisphere legs. Remember the hot summer season of 2018? With ocean levels of protection from incessant high speed spray, it needed to be lighter weight than their Ocean gear, with very high breathability.

Using Zhik's own in house sample facility, the team reacted fast and were able to make custom a range of custom smocks in a short amount of time.

To address this, Zhik's Aroshell fabric, predominantly used for the coastal/inshore ranges, was used to create an lightweight smock with a difference. The addition of a zip on Adaptive Hood, as developed for the ocean range, enabled the crew to turn an inshore smock into a highly protective offshore smock, as conditions on board changed.

The new Aroshell smock with the adaptive hood was launched into the Zhik range earlier this year.

Further development has gone into Zhik's Seaboot range, resulting in a new addition to the range this Autumn. The Seaboot 900 offers additional lateral ankle support, whilst retaining the original flexibility and agility of the uppers and sole. For long periods standing, such as helming and winching on sharply inclined decks, this offers additional comfort and support for foot and ankle muscles.

"The aim was to enhance what was already a solid product, focusing on support comfort " comments Drue Kerr, one of Zhik's footwear designers. "A new injection moulded sole was created. This allowed us to control the rubber formula and grip pattern with more accuracy. At the same time we made the rubber sole more grippy and more durable. Plus removed complexity from the manufacturing process which improves reliability."

The results and rewards:

As a result of Zhik's involvement with the Volvo Ocean Race, there are a number of other new innovations. Including the new boots, these will be be launched at the METS 2018 trade show and coming into the sailing market for the 2018-19 season.

The Isotak X range has already won a prestigious METS DAME Award for design and innovation in technical clothing.

As with all intense R&D projects, it was not always an easy ride. Milczarchzyk, recollects: "I'm genuinely proud of what the team achieved. We took on two teams, a lot of corporate gear and two merchandise ranges. It's really satisfying to have got through it, despite a few moments where it felt like we were drowning, with the brand reputation at stake. We got our butts kicked at times, which was also an opportunity.

Throughout, our team work was good, lifting each other when we needed to. And the inspiration from the race teams was simply huge. Their task was to win - so was ours! It's been an incredible journey - and it won't stop here."

Certainly, the Zhik team can be proud of their achievements, especially when you get feedback from the sailors and support teams with their exacting standards.

Bruno Dubois, Team Manager, Dongfeng Race Team and a man focused on delivering the best, complimented the Zhik team: "Thank you Zhik. Very good job from you and your team. Thanks for your support.You guys never give up.Your resilience is the same as our Team. We almost feel obliged to use all the new stuff - we feel like we owe it to you, from all the work you have put in."

As many of the products are now lining up to hit the market, Piet Poelmann, Zhik's CEO has the final word: "What an incredible journey this has been for Zhik. We threw ourselves into the fire when we could have hidden. We knew this would be a huge project to take our kit to the next level. The fact that both teams are so happy makes the company very proud. We have helped them to reach the podium and the great thing is that this technology is now available for consumers to buy."

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