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UFOs a challenge to Vendee Globe racers

Feb 28, 2017
Rich Wilson aboard his race boat Great American IV at the start of the Vendee Globe Race. At press time Wilson was still competing, but many other racers had dropped out due to gear failures.

Rich Wilson aboard his race boat Great American IV at the start of the Vendee Globe Race. At press time Wilson was still competing, but many other racers had dropped out due to gear failures.

Courtesy Vendee Globe

The Vendee Globe is known as a “race of attrition,” and the 2016-17 contest has proven no different.

Twenty-nine sailors set forth from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, when the solo, nonstop round-the-world race began on Nov. 6, 2016. By Jan. 13, 11 sailors had retired, surpassing the total from the most recent Vendee Globe held in 2012-13. The race is typically held every four years.

At least six of the 11 sailors who left the current competition did so after hitting an unidentified floating object (UFO), according to data released by race organizers. The sailor currently in second place, Alex Thomson of England, also struck a UFO but was able to continue.

“Most of skippers haven’t been able to define what kind of UFO,” said Helena Paz, a race spokesperson. “Only Thomas Ruyant said that it had to be a container as the bang was tremendous.”

As of Jan. 17, Armel Le Cléac’h of France was leading the remaining 18 sailors and had completed some 98 percent of the course. British sailor Alex Thomson was in second and fellow Frenchman Jeremie Bayou was in third.

The two American sailors in the field, Rich Wilson and Conrad Colman, were still competing at press time. Colman was in 10th place and Wilson was in 14th place.

Racers began having trouble with UFOs soon after the competition started. French sailor Bertrand de Broc’s vessel MACSF struck an object off Portugal early in the race, damaging a large part of the boat’s hull. He officially retired Nov. 19.

A day later on Nov. 20, PRB, skippered by Vincent Riou, struck an object in the water that damaged his vessel’s keel pin. He retired two days later, 14 days into the race. Riou retired at the same point in the 2012-13 contest after hitting a metal buoy, organizers said.

French sailor Morgan Lagravière was sailing aboard Safran at about 18 knots when he struck a UFO on Nov. 24. The impact knocked him down and damaged his vessel’s starboard rudder, and he retired the same day.

On Dec. 5, Sebastien Josse’s vessel Edmond de Rothschild sustained “major damage to the port foil” after striking an unknown object south of Australia. He retired two days later.

Kito de Pavant of France was sailing at about 16 knots in heavy seas when his vessel, Bastide Otio, struck a UFO on Dec. 6. The impact caused significant flooding and his vessel was abandoned at sea. The French ship Marion Dufresne II, which supplies French territories in the Indian Ocean, rescued de Pavant on Dec. 7.

“I hit something hard with the keel. It was a violent shock and the boat came to a standstill. The rear bearings of the keel were ripped off and the keel is hanging under the boat, kept in place simply by the keel ram, which is in the process of cutting through the hull,” de Pavant said in a phone call after the accident, which was shared by race organizers.

The most recent accident was believed to involve a floating shipping container. French sailor Thomas Ruyant’s vessel Le Souffle Du Nord Pour Le Project Imagine slammed into an object in heavy seas and 40-knot winds, causing flooding in the bow and damage to the starboard rudder and bottom frame. Structural damage also was found on the deck, organizers said.

Enda O’Coineen of Ireland, Frenchman Stéphane Le Diraison and Japanese sailor Kojiro Shiraishi retired after their vessels dismasted. Tanguy de Lamotte of France left the race after the mast broke aboard his sailboat, Initiatives Coeur. Paul Meilhat of France retired after his boat SMA sustained damage to the ram keel.

Collisions with UFOs are “quite usual” in this type of race, Paz said, and they’re one of the things skippers are most concerned about.

After Riou’s collision, fellow Frenchman Jean le Cam said there is little sailors can do. “It’s happened to Vincent, and will happen to others,” he said in a statement.

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