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Fastest Vendee Globe Race ever?

Jan 1, 2003

About the time you see this issue of Ocean Navigator, around 20 die-hard sailors will leave France in the fourth running of the Vendée Globe Race - arguably the world's toughest, most hazardous yacht race. The Vendée Globe came about in the late 1980s when Philippe Jeantot, riding high after back-to-back wins in the four-stage BOC Challenge (now Around Alone), teamed up with several fellow French professionals to launch an even more extreme event, a race designed to define the pinnacle of single-handing sailing. This "ultimate marathon" is a non-stop, solo circumnavigation that begins and ends in France with no outside assistance of any sort beyond public-domain weather information.

Through three iterations now, the Vendée Globe has gripped the public imagination in France like nothing else in sailing. No question, this is seen as the Big One - the apex of a four-year cycle of prestigious events that make up the open 60 monohull calendar. Due to its non-stop character, the Vendée is inherently more dangerous than a multi-stage circumnavigation like Around Alone. For one thing, more than three months of day-and-night sailing obviously leads to much greater skipper and equipment fatigue. Moreover, because Vendée competitors are often separated by hundreds if not thousands of miles, the chances of receiving aid from a fellow racer are substantially poorer than in shorter ocean races. Pete Goss' dramatic rescue of Raphael Dinelli in the 1996-'97 Vendée entailed several days of backtracking into the teeth of a fully developed southern ocean storm - a feat so incredible that it bordered on the miraculous. Because so much of the southern ocean lies outside the range of land-based search-and-rescue aircraft, the course for this year's Vendée Globe has been amended with additional waypoints to keep competitors somewhat closer to help (and out of the worst ice zones). All the same, the Vendée sailors will be far more isolated than participants in other major ocean races and therefore more at risk.

Few finishers

Very high attrition rates have always characterized the Vendée, to the point that simply finishing this brutal marathon is regarded a magnificent triumph. In the first race (1988-89) there were seven finishers from a field of 13; in 1992-93, again seven finishers, but out of 14; and in 1996-'97, just six finishers from 16 starters. All three races have seen capsizes and dramatic rescues, while the last two have each resulted in loss of life.

Shocked by these events, and belatedly acknowledging that the open class design evolution had taken a rather treacherous turn, both pro skippers and race organizers agreed that substantive changes were needed before the next Vendée Globe. The need was re-emphasized two years later by the capsize and loss of Isabelle Autissier's PRB during the Around Alone. By that time the Notice of Race for the 2000-'01 Vendée Globe had come out with new (albeit rather subjective) self-righting requirements. Soon after, a group composed primarily of open class skippers came out with recommendations of their own.

Although the two groups of stakeholders - event organizers and racers - have not always acted in concert in addressing these concerns, there's no doubt that the open class fleet as a whole has become significantly more seaworthy during the past two years. And in view of the wide-beam trend seen in today's mass-market keelboats, it's not unlikely that some of the improvements that have enhanced the fundamental safety of these radical racing machines may eventually find their way into mainstream recreational boats.

Reforming the Open Class rules

The Notice of Race for the upcoming Vendée Globe specifies that the competing yachts must fulfill the technical requirements developed by the Federation Internationale de la Course Oceanique (FICO), a body comprised primarily of race organizers, although with plenty of input from currently active sailors. When it comes to the self-righting requirement, the Vendée requirements are less-than-rigorously defined. The Notice of Race (translated English version) states "All yachts must be equipped with at least an active self-righting system for large angles," Of course, the implication is that a yacht capable of self-righting on its own without the aid of inflatable air bags, shifting of ballast, etc., would be preferable. The Notice of Race goes on to specify that "the skipper will have to explain how the [self-righting] system works with the help of the yacht's design plans." The potential problem with this subjective approach is the natural disinclination of race organizers to disqualify high-profile entries with marginal self-righting features. By the same token, the sailors themselves might be tempted to seek out the lower limits of "acceptable self-righting" in their efforts to find a competitive speed advantage.

There is now, however, an alternative set of regulations for open class monohulls that addresses the issue of self-righting on a more objective and concrete basis. In 1998, the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) formally recognized the International Monohull Open 50/60 Foot Class (IMOCA), just as it has in the case of numerous one designs, as well as popular developmental classes such as the International 14s. IMOCA is, in essence, a class association representing the open class sailors themselves.

Looking ahead beyond this Vendée Globe, it appears likely that the more detailed requirements spelled out by IMOCA will become the universal technical standard for the open class monohulls (although jurisdictional squabbles may well continue when it comes to hot issues like advertising and media rights). And, despite the fact that IMOCA's self-righting standards are not a prerequisite for this Vendée Globe, most participating skippers have, by now, tested their boats against them and upgraded as necessary. Voyaging sailors contemplating challenging ocean passages might well consider doing the same.

IMOCA's recently-minted regulations call for both a theoretical stability assessment and a physical self-righting test. The computer-generated stability curves must show an angle of vanishing stability (disregarding possible rig buoyancy) of at least 127.5°. More importantly, the area under the positive portion of the stability curve must be at least five times greater than the area under the negative portion. In practice, this means that the wave energy required to overturn the yacht will be at least five times greater than the energy needed to heel the inverted hull to the point it will spontaneously self-right. IMOCA standards for open class boats built before 1997 are a little less demanding, but most of the competitive boats from the early 1990s have nevertheless required substantially heavier keel bulbs and other modifications. Positive action required

The physical righting test involves inverting the hull (rig removed) by using a crane to hoist on a strop attached to the keel bulb. In most cases, self-right from a 180° inversion in calm water conditions will require some positive action on the part of the skipper, so someone stays aboard to operate the canting keel, shift water ballast, or whatever is required (see inversion test piece in Chartroom Chatter, page 6).

Thus far, the new-generation open 60s tested have passed with apparent ease, although there has sometimes been a spot of nervousness about conducting these tests in the public eye. Ellen MacArthur's Kingfisher was inverted in a mooring basin near the build site in Auckland at the precise time the first race of the America's Cup final was getting underway - quite possibly as a way to minimize the risk of embarrassment.

Aquitaine Innovations, the first of the wing-mast open 60s, proved unable to self-right, even with the aid of a stern-mounted air bag. To meet the new requirements, Yves Parlier's radical machine - perhaps the lightest open 60 ever - has apparently needed a good deal more ballast on its (non-canting) keel, as well as substantive structural modifications to withstand the greater stresses associated with carrying more ballast. Whether Parlier's 1995-vintage boat is still competitive after these changes remains to be seen; she was one of three open 60s that dismasted in the early stages of last summer's Europe1 NewMan STAR.

Although Jean-Marie Finot and his partner Pascal Conq have dominated open class monohull design throughout the '90s, it is clear that other designers are beginning to have a real impact. The Marc Lombard creations campaigned by Catherine Chabaud, Whirlpool Europe 2, and Roland Jourdain, Sill Enterprises, have done extremely well, so far, as, of course, has the Owen/Humphries Kingfisher.

By and large, these designers appear to have stolen a march on Finot-Conq in developing slightly slimmer open class boats with more fixed ballast, positive deck camber, and greater raised cabin volume to improve self-righting characteristics. So far, the improvements achieved in ease-of-handling, upwind pace, and light air performance appear to be offsetting the presumed decreases in power-to-weight ratios. Whether this continues to hold true for the Vendée - above all, a power-reaching race - remains to be seen.

Under both FICA and IMOCA, open 60s will now be required to fit auxiliary propulsion engines with non-retractable lower units, normally the sail-drive type. Prop shafts are sealed for competition, but the engines must be instantly available for emergencies. New boats are required to have a foam-filled crash box in bow as well as five watertight bulkheads. In addition, the scantlings must provide "unsinkable volume" greater than 130% of the yacht's displacement, distributed fore-and-aft in proportion to the volume of the six watertight compartments. Given the ultra-light displacement of these boats, this requirement can normally be fulfilled by using thick layers of core material in fabricating the hull/deck structures.Vendée predictions

After her spectacular win in the Europe1 NewManSTAR in her first attempt at Open 60 racing, all eyes are on Britain's 23-year-old Ellen MacArthur for the Vendée. Standing in her path, however, are a hardened group of pro racing veterans, each with vastly greater experience than MacArthur. Dominique Wavre of Switzerland and Thomas Coville, Michael Desjoyeaux, Roland Jardain, Yves Parlier, and Marc Thiercelin (all from France) appear to be the strongest contenders based on their excellent track records. Britain's Mike Golding also looks awfully good, and may well be due for a big win after grounding out while leading the Around Alone and overcoming substantial gear damage to finish third in the recent STAR. In addition, there's a formidable "second string" of former Olympic sailors and seasoned pro single-handers who certainly cannot be discounted.

The last Vendée began as a wild, neck-and-neck sprint into the southern Atlantic, but it lost its competitive fervor after the first few weeks as each of the fastest sailors except the eventual winner, Christophe Auguin, succumbed to breakdown or worse. But this year there are 12 to 14 entries with genuine winning potential; last time it was probably only four. Thanks to the new regulations and on-going equipment development, today's Open Class boats are safer and more reliable than before, but these advantages will most likely be nullified by the heightened intensity of the competition. Keep the "pedal to the metal" long enough, and something's bound to break, so I would not be surprised if, once again, only about half a dozen sailors finish this race. Hopefully, the upgraded safety standards for this event (and open class racing in general), will help prevent the loss of more lives or boats.U.S. challengers fall short

As recently as the new year, two West Coast sailors held out hope for making the start of the Vendée Globe, Bruce Schwab and Bob Gay, but each program fell prey to various problems, mostly linked to insufficient funding. Nevertheless, both still aim to continue preparing for a variety of single/shorthanded events. They will likely soon be joined by a third American: Around Alone veteran Brad van Liew, who currently has a new open 60 in the planning stages with designer Alan Andrews.

Bruce Schwab, a professional yacht rigger from in Oakland, Calif., has spent most of his time during the past few years putting together an open 60 program based on a unique, "narrow-concept" design by his friend Tom Wylie. Made in America is 14.5 feet wide - about four feet less than the class norm. Last July, I saw this boat under construction at the Schooner Creek Boatworks in Oregon: the wood/ foam composite hull shell was largely complete but much of the basic structure was not yet finished. Schwab, a single-handed TransPac winner in 1996, is nevertheless determined to conduct a four-year Open 60 campaign building up to the Vendée Globe in 2004-5.