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Multihulls unlimited

Jan 1, 2003

Against all odds, Bruno Peyron's grand vision - a fleet of monster multihulls pushing hell-for-leather around the world - has somehow become a reality. Back in August, few would have wagered much on the prospects for a "real race" with six legitimate starters, considering that every prospective entry was either up on the hard repairing fairly serious breakdowns or under construction with launching time still months away. There was widespread speculation that the "final race of the millennium" would have to be put forward well into the next - a development that the French Millennium Fund, a major sponsor, would surely not have appreciated. And after Team Philips was re-launched but promptly experienced a major rig failure, the most likely scenario for the great event appeared to be a global match race between PlayStation and Club Med, the two programs with the most training miles (and apparently, the healthiest budgets).

Nevertheless, at the time of writing (10 days into the Race), the world is witnessing a closely fought contest among three very similar, 110-foot Ollier-designed cats. Team Adventure, Club Med, and Innovation Explorer have each taken the lead at one time or another, but none has so far managed to break clear of the others. As for the three remaining starters, each has stumbled somewhat in the early going. However, it would obviously be premature to count anyone out in the early stages, especially in view of the more demanding conditions yet to come.

As the big cats enter the Southern Ocean, there's every likelihood that The Race will undergo a fundamental shift in character, from neck-and-neck sprint to brutal war of attrition. The 72 professional sailors and their support teams are acutely aware that these lightly constructed and largely untested machines are almost certain to suffer significant gear failures during the weeks to come. Indeed, it was a rash of "opening night" equipment problems that forced PlayStation, Warta Polpharma, and Team Legato to make pit stops at Gibraltar soon after the start in Barcelona. To guard against ultimate disaster, the organizers of The Race have taken the unprecedented step of chartering a support vessel - the former Whitbread maxi-yacht Merit - which quietly left France in late November to await the fleet in the southern Indian Ocean. In keeping with the "unlimited" character of this event, there are few rules, but those that do exist are predominantly concerned with safety. For example, all six boats are extensively equipped to enable the crew to live and communicate for up to several weeks in the overturned hulls while awaiting rescue after a capsize.

The highly refined 60-foot open 60 trimarans regularly hit speeds similar to these monster cats (and may even have a slight edge in certain conditions). However, if for no other reason than because this new generation of out-sized racers can accommodate much larger crews, more spares, etc., they are certain to rewrite the record book when it comes to the longer ocean routes. In the short term, given their extremely limited work-up time and well-documented teething pains, it seems likely that winning the inaugural edition of The Race will be more a matter of outstanding seamanship than speed. Certainly, two keys to success will be brilliant weather routing, and the skills/resources to cope with the all-but-inevitable gear failures.

Then, there's the very real risk of high-speed collisions with large marine life and other sub-surface obstructions - once again the number-one cause of disabling boat damage in the ongoing Vendée Globe. The first 10 days of The Race have already produced several hits (although no acknowledged boat damage) and more near-misses. Comparing the Vendée open 60 monohulls to the boats in The Race, there's no reason to believe that the latter, averaging more than double the speed, will be any less vulnerable. A good lookout can only go so far in avoiding these collisions, so an element of chance definitely comes into play.

Now in its fourth edition, the Vendée has evolved into a relatively structured, global regatta, while The Race is still at the primary "exploration/adventure" stage. Nevertheless, it's the same key elements - weather routing, preserving the equipment, and a healthy measure of good luck - that look to be decisive in both.

As I write this, the leading Vendée Globe competitor has just rounded Cape Horn. Compared to the first three Vendées (and obviously The Race), this clearly qualifies as a mature event. Extremely close boat-for-boat racing has persisted for an unprecedented two-thirds of the course. Yet once again, it's weather routing acumen, and old-fashioned ingenuity, that appear to be winning the day for Michel Desjoyeaux aboard PRB.

Last, in what's unquestionably become the busiest-ever racing season in the desolate Southern Ocean, the BT Challenge fleet is currently approaching Wellington, New Zealand - roughly a third of the way into their arduous "wrong-way" trip around the world. This time, the 12 amateur crews (each guided by a professional skipper) are racing new, somewhat livelier 72-footers, at least as compared to the husky 67s used in past editions of this event. But make no mistake: these are still robust steel voyaging yachts built to endure thousands of miles of upwind punishment. Interestingly, however, the new 72s were deliberately designed to be a bit on the tender side in order to avoid overstressing the sails, rigging, and deck gear. Of course, tender is not synonymous with capsize-prone; the new Rob Humphrys-designed fleet is self-righting to almost 130 degrees with a healthy ratio of positive-to-negative area under the stability curve. On the other hand, there's clearly a trade-off to be considered, because experience in previous BT races has shown that success in preserving their equipment, especially the rather modest sail inventory, has figured decisively in separating the winners from the losers.

While just a tiny minority of sailors will ever venture into the Southern Ocean, there's clearly a great deal to be learned from these outer-limits marathon events, for racers and voyagers alike.

An amazing beginningEven if none of the competitors manages to complete the course, Bruno Peyron's brainchild has already succeeded in firing the imaginations of both sailors and non-sailors worldwide. Indeed, on December 31, the official Race web site (www.therace.org) almost instantly succumbed under the weight of several million hits, and despite fervent efforts on the part of the techies, was still struggling several days later. There have also been some difficulties with the promised live TV broadcasts from the boats, but not enough to impede a flood of media coverage. Even in the U.S., where weeks often pass without so much as a 15-second spot on offshore sailboat racing, the start of The Race got front-line coverage on network TV news. Better yet, because two of the most favored contenders - Team Adventure and PlayStation - are sailing for the U.S., there's reason to believe that, for once, we have a sailing story that will keep making news for weeks on end.

Back when the December 2000 start of The Race was still several years away, a dazzling assortment of highly imaginative sailing craft were proposed and analyzed. Tri-foils and 60-meter monohulls were exhaustively compared to more conventional trimarans and catamarans. But as time ran down and fund-raising efforts proved finite, every program save one opted to go with the proven solution: a sloop-rigged catamaran along the lines of former Jules Verne record setters Commodore Explorer and Enza, only bigger. True, the current round-the-world sailing record is held by Sport Elec a 90-foot trimaran. However, when push came to shove, nearly all the design groups independently determined that a catamaran solution offered more bang for the buck thanks to a fundamentally simpler structure and correspondingly lower tooling costs. Somewhat surprisingly, Sport Elec was not entered in The Race, although the only two other boats to hold the Jules Verne trophy are back. Earl Edward's amazing 118-foot trimaran Rave out of Hawaii could not be completed in time. So, when the final countdown began, the only real wild card of the lot was Pete Goss' 120-foot wave-piercing cat, Team Philips. Despite her brief and catastrophic history, this amazing machine represented a spectacular leap in sailing technology - exactly the sort of progressive thinking that this event was meant to encourage. Sadly, it appears to have been a case of biting off too much in one go. Perhaps the greatest downside of pushing ahead with The Race on schedule was the loss of Team Philips with her many innovative and as yet untested features.

Steve Fossett's PlayStation was the first new boat built for The Race, but her two-year lead time has not translated into a proportional advantage in terms of actual training days. First, a severe electrical fire put her out of commission for several months; then problems with longitudinal stability surfaced that prompted a major re-build of the entire sailing platform. With the tallest, most powerful rig in the fleet, PlayStation proved dangerously prone to nose-dive and bury of the forward cross beam, especially while sailing downwind in big seas. Last October she was drydocked in England to have her hulls extended 15 feet forward and 5 feet aft. At 125 feet LOA, she's now the largest boat in the fleet by a significant margin; and even after being stretched she remains proportionally wider than the others. Interestingly, her rig is the most conservative of the lot - a conventional fixed mast rather than a rotating wing.

The triplets, Club Med, Innovation Explorer, and Team Adventure, were designed by the very experienced Gilles Ollier group, and assembled from parts built on common tooling to save time and money. Although near-sisterships, Club Med was launched last May, and has by far the most sailing under her belt. This lead time, however, has proven to be a double-edged sword, because the process of rectifying various structural deficiencies that were uncovered during her sea trials allowed Innovation Explorer and Team Adventure to be upgraded while "still in the mold." Grant Dalton, Club Med's Kiwi skipper, is unfailingly diplomatic, but some of his comments leave little doubt that he's bothered that his 110-foot catamaran has essentially served as a guinea pig, allowing the others to leap-frog further up the developmental ladder.

The three sisters have markedly different sail inventories. nnovation Explorer, with a tighter budget than the others, is racing with first-generation sails from the Club Med program. As for Club Med, Dalton and his nine-nation international team ultimately elected to go with their lightly used, second-generation Spectra sails rather than taking a chance with substantially lighter, but perhaps less durable, carbon-fiber and Cuben-fiber creations.

In contrast, Cam Lewis and the Team Adventure crew are committed to Cuben fiber - a high-tech variant on the Spectra theme that's produced in small batches under strictly controlled conditions. With noted sail designer and multihull guru Randy Smythe aboard, this group has gone all out with larger, lighter sails than her sisterships. The dual-clew, quadrilateral gennaker is particularly interesting - potentially a good way to distribute loads more uniformly and improve twist control.

On the other hand, the PlayStation team is no doubt ruing the day they opted to experiment with the breathtakingly expensive Cuben fiber (about $100,000 per sail for the fabric alone). Soon after the start, both their new main and solent jib blew out while beating toward the Strait of Gibraltar in a stiff breeze. Luckily, in anticipation of such problems, the rules governing The Race had been modified to allow emergency stops with shoreside assistance - albeit with a 48-hour minimum tie-up time required. Re-equipped with her original Spectra inventory, PlayStation resumed The Race about 500 miles behind the leaders, and almost immediately began to nibble away at the deficit.

The 48-hour penalty period for pit stops appears to be a reasonable solution, and may well prove critical if any of the six entries are to complete the course. In certain circumstances, a planned pit stop to re-provision, replace the worn sails, etc., might conceivably save more than 48 hours of sailing time during a 70- to 75-day circumnavigation, but it would be a tremendous gamble that could very easily backfire.

From a sponsor's perspective, it's far more economical to support a non-stop marathon like the Vendée Globe than a multi-leg events such as the Volvo Ocean Race. The latter involves moving a fair-sized village of shore crew, family members, and organizers to a series of port cities around the world. Now that real-time, on-board race coverage is a reality, the absence of stops-overs no longer means a dearth of publicity.

Of course, the sophisticated on-board communications don't always work. The Polish entry, Warta Polpharma (ex-ommodore Explorer) was called in to Gibraltar so technicians could rectify a problem with the Inmarsat B station that all competitors are required to carry. Since this was clearly not the crews' fault, they were not required to wait 48 hours and have been awarded a time allowance.

The British cat Team Legato, skippered by Tony Bullimore, very nearly missed the start, and, in fact, was short some 150 qualification miles that had to be made up before officially crossing the line. Already trailing the fleet, they almost immediately suffered crippling rig damage, necessitating a stop at Gibraltar for a mainsail headboard repair and the mandatory two-day penalty. By this point, weather conditions in the North Atlantic had deteriorated, and the Brits needed to struggle upwind much longer than the others had before finally reaching the trade winds. On the other hand, considering the steep odds against this crew, it's remarkable that they are at the party at all. Indeed, no matter how the The Race turns out, Bruno Peyron has a winner on his hands, and ocean racing will never be the same.

An exceptionally tricky Vendée

Without question, this year's Vendée Globe is another triumph, as the many Ocean Navigator readers who've been following the dramatics via the Virtual Spectator software (www.virtualspectator.com) can attest. Space does not permit an exhaustive discussion of the Vendée Globe here, but it's worth considering a few of the highlights.

This past December, the Southern Ocean did not live up to its fearsome reputation. On the other hand, the unusual weather mix was, in some respects, more challenging than the typical parade of deep depressions. Vendée competitors didn't get much big wind surfing down the long swells, but they still saw plenty of very rough water, often accompanied by too little wind.

Unlike crews in The Race, the Vendée sailors are not permitted to consult with shore-based weather routers, although most use on-board computer systems equipped with routing software. Yves Parlier and Michel Desjoyeaux, the two French soloists who are generally acknowledged as the best in the business when it comes to weather interpretation, have largely set the tone of the race. The first major turning point occurred when Parlier made an uncharacteristic error by sailing too far south (presumably to shorten his course). He got caught in the headwinds on the southern flank of the next overtaking system. In an effort to regain his lead, he evidently pushed his boat too hard and broke the top half of his wing mast. Rather than withdrawing, however, he has elected to continue slowly on to Steward Island at the southern extremity of New Zealand where, at the time of writing, he's at anchor and working to reconstruct his carbon-fiber rig - an amazing feat should he ultimately succeed in completing the course.

Even with Parlier no longer a threat, Michel Desjoyeaux still had to work like the devil to establish an advantage. From Cape Town to Cape Horn he was closely pursued by Roland Jourdain, Ellen MacArthur, and Marc Thiercelin with another cluster of four sailors still within striking distance. The breakthrough finally came a few hundred miles before Cape Horn when Desjoyeaux managed to latch onto the back side of a relatively slow-moving low and rode it into a 200-mile lead that has subsequently extended to more than 400 miles. This strategic coup was only possible, however, because just hours earlier he'd resolved an electrical crisis that had seriously threatened his competitive status.

Several days earlier, the starter motor for Desjoyeaux's auxiliary diesel had burned out, and he'd been forced to carry on blind, without enough electricity to operate most of his electronics. But although the 37-hp Yanmar was too big to crank by hand, the sailor known as "Le Professor" eventually came up with an ingenious solution. A line wrapped around the flywheel and lead via blocks to the boom allowed the force of the huge sail to crank the engine when the mainsheet was suddenly released. Just another example of the seamanship displayed by Vendée competitors on every day of the race, but an exceptionally clever trick all the same.