A tale of two races

By mid-March, the last two Vendee Globe racers had recrossed the Equator and were closing on the finish at Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. Six competitors had already reached the finish line, although two of these are classed as unofficial participants, having previously disqualified themselves by stopping for repairs.

Two racers had retired, and another may yet complete the circumnavigation following two repair stops. However, four skippersfully a quarter of the 16 startershad to be rescued at sea. Meanwhile, a fifth, Canadian Gerry Roufs, is presumed lost following an extensive air/sea search. Although the two previous Vendee Globes had their share of casualties and dramatic rescues, the ’96-’97 edition surpasses all records.

The Vendee Globe is the "ultimate world race" that professional singlehanders always said they wanteda non-stop circumnavigation in Open Class 60s with no outside assistance. It’s also the leading candidate for a more dubious title: world’s most dangerous sailboat race. A combination of features conspire to make it especially riskymost notably the non-stop requirement that motivates racers to struggle on in seriously damaged boats and that virtually guarantees a widely separated fleet.

Meanwhile, Chay Blyth’s BT Challenge fleet is on its way from Sidney to Cape Town, the fourth of six legs in this ultra-rugged race around the world against the prevailing winds. The 14 identical steel 67-footers have professional skippers but amateur crews, who pay roughly $28,000 each for the privilege of racing mostly upwind for 180 to 200 days. Billed as the "world’s toughest yacht race," it is undeniably arduous, but, for a variety of reasons, nowhere near as dangerous at the Vendee Globe.

Disaster and triumph

Toward the end of last year the Southern Ocean was no place for the unlucky or the inadequately prepared. Back-to-back storms, with winds often exceeding 60 knots and mountainous, breaking waves, wreaked havoc with the Vendee fleet. British sailor Peter Goss managed to rescue Raphael Dinelli from his sinking boat; and two other competitorsThierry Dubois and Tony Bullimorewere retrieved by the Australian navy after spending harrowing days atop or inside their inverted hulls.

On January 7 Gerry Roufs abruptly ceased all communications and disappeared from the Argos satellite track (which normally updates boat positions several times daily). Racing in second place at the time, Roufs vanished almost exactly halfway between New Zealand and Chileoutside the range of any search aircraft. Isabelle Autissier, who by then was sailing the course unofficially after a repair stop in Cape Town, spent two days attempting to search the vicinity of Roufs’ last-known position, but she had experienced great difficulties in severe storm conditions. Commercial ships and another competitor, Marc Thiercelin, later participated in the search, aided by satellite radar imagery (which turned up dozens of false leads). No sign of Roufs was found.

The drama of search and rescue has somewhat overshadowed the latest remarkable accomplishment of Vendee and two-time BOC winner Christophe Auguin, sailing Geodis, the same boat he skippered to victory in his second BOC. The early weeks of the Vendee saw neck-and-neck competition between three favorites: Auguin, Yves Parlier aboard Aquataine Innovations, and Isabelle Autissier on PRB. But after the latter two were put out of contention by breakdowns, Auguin seemed to be in a class of his own, eventually crossing the finish line with a lead of almost 2,000 miles. His policy of pushing hard in moderate conditions while easing up in gales to avoid stressing his equipment excessively brought him back to France with a Vendee record of 105 days, 20 hours aboard a boat that looked ready to start around again immediately. But Auguin announced that three solo circumnavigations was plenty, and in the future he’d sail only crewed races.

The race for second place went down to the wire, with Herve Larent and Marc Thiercelin sailing neck and neck over the final 1,000 miles. In the end, the latter finished just under an hour ahead after 114 days at sea.

The BT a different race

After sailing the same course using the same boats in ’92-’93, Chay Blyth and his team had an excellent idea of what to expect for the second edition of the BT Challenge. Several skippers had sailed the previous race, and one, Mike Golding of Group 4, spent a year between races sailing the massive 67-footer upwind around the world singlehanded. With Golding’s immense experience, it’s no great surprise that Group 4 leads the 14-boat fleet by a 18 hours, 48 minutes combined time after three legs.

What is surprising is the vastly elevated intensity of the competition relative to the first edition of the race. Not only has the fleet remained closely bunched over thousands of ocean miles, but the yachts have progressed, on average, about 10% faster than they did four years ago.

Hard driving may have been a factor contributing to rigging problems suffered by half the fleet midway through the second leg of the race between Rio and Wellington. Uncannily reminiscent of the forestay turnbuckle failures that affected six of the same boats during the last running of this event, the problem this time is less clear-cut. Although all breakage entailed fatigue failures in 1 x 19 standing rigging close to the terminals, this time forestays, backstays, and upper and lower shrouds were affectedseemingly at random.

The crew of Concert, dismasted and forced to retire and power into Wellington after a third-place in finish in leg 1, were particularly disgusted by this turn of events, and several skippers attacked the organizers for continuing the leg after rigging began to fail. The colorful Chay Blyth deflected criticism, saying, "This is an intensely competitive race in which boats will occasionally be pushed beyond their natural limits. In a one-design race of this kind, it is inevitable that any weakness will be duplicated. We never lose sight of the paramount need for safety, but these types of problems are the nature of the beast."

During the stopover in Wellington, a feverish effort to track down the cause of the rigging problems produced inconclusive results. However, all BT Challenge yachts received complete new wire sets before the start of leg 3.

Vendee heroics

Vendee Globe rules specify a non-stop circumnavigation of Antarctica leaving from and returning to Les Sables-d’Olonne, remaining north of the 60th parallel to minimize intrusion into the southern ice zone, and utilizing no outside assistance except "openly available" weather information (plus medical advice as necessary). This makes the race as much a test of endurance, self-sufficiency, and intelligent pacing as sheer speed.

Naturally, the rules permit one competitor to rescue another, as was the case on December 26 when British sailor Peter Goss plucked Raphael Dinelli from a life raft previously air-dropped by an Australian search and rescue (SAR) plane. Dinelli had already been disqualified as an official competitor after being forced into Cape Town to repair a broken rudder. But, once back on the course, he was sailing quite normally in difficult conditions when a sudden, savage knockdown dismasted Algimouss and left her a sinking wreck. Australian Orion SAR aircraft flew repeated sorties to locate Dinelli and help guide Peter Goss 67 miles back to windward for the pick-up.

Two weeks later a much larger rescue operation began with four Australian search aircraft going to the aid of Tony Bullimore and Thierry Dubois. During the night of January 4/5, the two were sailing in fairly close proximity when both yachts overturned and remained inverted. Bullimore’s boat lost its keel bulb, but, judging from rescue photographs, Dubois’ remained intact. Apparently his beamy boat had sufficient stability in the inverted position to remain mast-down despite extremely rough seas.

Thanks to an anti-exposure suit, Dubois survived two days atop the overturned hull in near-freezing air and water temperatures, followed by a third day in an air-dropped life raft prior to final rescue.

Bullimore was trapped below decks when his Exide Challenger lost its keel, but was able to signal by switching an EPIRB on and off. Because Bullimore’s only active EPIRB ceased transmitting not long after the overturned boat had been spotted by the searchers, aircraft were forced to watch over the drifting hull in shifts while operating close to the outer limits of their range.

Final rescue came in the form of the frigate Adelaide, which had steamed 1,400 miles from Perth in extremely bad weather. Adelaide’s helicopter plucked Dubois from the raft, while Bullimore swam out from beneath his overturned hull when he heard rescuers outside.

Meanwhile, Peter Goss had diverted to Hobart, Tasmania, where he discharged his unexpected passenger, and he promptly put to sea to resume the race. Unfortunately, Peter’s left elbow, injured during the rescue, became severely swollen and eventually split open. Operating on it himself without anesthesia, while periodically stopping to "discuss" the situation via fax with doctors in France, can only be described as harrowing in the extreme. Nevertheless, the operation proved a success, and, with antibiotics to control the infection, the former Royal Marine has made a near full recovery.

Rudder, keel, and hull failures

Crippling keel and rudder problems have been a recurrent theme in this Vendee. Isabelle Autissier, aboard PRB, lost a rudder in the South Atlantic and was forced to retire from the official competition. Putting into Cape Town, she waited four days for two replacements to be flown from France and installed. After returning to sea on December 8 as an non-scoring participant, her potent canting keel flyer passed five boats, eventually moving into the second spot behind race leader Auguin. Unfortunately, she had already pulled about 25 miles ahead of Groupe LG2 when race organizers lost contact with Roufs’ yacht.

Another pre-race favorite was Yves Parlier, on Aqua-taine Innovations, the lightest Open 60 yet with a unique rotating wing mast. Sadly, this remarkable craft (dismasted during the Europe 1 STAR) again failed to live up to its potential due to rudder, batten, and furling gear breakage, along with assorted other problems. Parlier eventually limped into Perth, Australia, surviving on catchment water after his freshwater storage tank sprang a leak. Like Autissier, he returned to sea following a two-day Christmas repair stop, and like Autissier he has since completed the circumnavigation as an unofficial entrant.

Contemporary Open Class boats have very wide sterns (for extra form stability), making off-center twin rudders a necessity to maintain control when heeled. However, the windward rudder tends to skip along the water’s surface, making it particularly vulnerable to collision damage. One possible solution is a pair of retractable rudder blades (like daggerboards) mounted in rotating drum-like cassettes.

Swing keels prove their mettle

Prior to the start of the Vendee, Jean Marie Finotdesigner of the five most competitive boats in the fleetpredicted that the canting keel 60s had the potential to sail the predominantly off-wind course some two days faster than comparable water-stabilized ones.

Open Class 60s (and 50s) are governed by a safety regulation that specifies that the static angle of heel must not swing through more than 20° when all moveable ballast is shifted from extreme starboard to extreme port. Geodis’ canting keel can be displaced 25° from center using a pair of hydraulic rams powered by electric or manual backup pumps. In addition, Auguin has retained about a third of his boat’s original water ballastnow 2,000 liters per side. Water ballast and keel offset combined generate the maximum static heel angle that the rules require. Geodis also has two water ballast tanks on the hull midlineone ahead of the keel to help punch through waves when going to windward, and the other aft to hold the stern down in extreme running conditions. It’s a more complicated arrangement, but one that offers redundancy and numerous possibilities for fine-tuning.

Autissier’s PRB has a keel that swings up to 35° per side but no lateral water ballast. Fore and aft midline ballast tanks are fitted, and the bow sections are somewhat fuller than average to reduce submarining tendencies when driven hard downwind.

Peter Goss’ Open 50 Aqua Quorum also sports a canting keel and, despite giving up 10 feet to all other competitors, has shown intermittent bursts of spectacular speed, including a 24-hour run of 344.8 nautical miles.

No evidence has emerged so far to suggest that canting keels have led to problems during the Vendee. Indeed, it’s unlikely that Thierry Dubois’ overturned Pour Amnesty International would have remained inverted for several days in severe seas had it been equipped with a keel that had been canted 25° to 35° off center during (or after) the capsize. Such a keel could have allowed him to reright the boat. Likewise, during her harrowing attempt to reach Jerry Rouf’s last-known position, Isabelle Autissier sustained six severe knockdowns and reported that twice she had to reposition her canting keel to persuade PRB to the right.

A uniquely dangerous race

Prior to the start, Finot described Gerry Rouf’s Groupe LG2 as "the best synthesis of our new non-extreme 60-footers." A newer hull from the same mold as Geodis but equipped with a fixed keel and simplified gear, Rouf’s had sailed LG2 to victory last summer’s rugged Europe 1 STAR. Along with Geodis, she was generally considered to be one of the two best-prepared boats in the fleet. Her French-Canadian skipper was a tough, seasoned pro. But unless floating wreckage turns up, it’s unlikely we will ever know his fate.

It was sheer coincidence that Isabelle Autissier was within 25 miles of Gerry Roufs when his Argos signals ceased, but it was probably no coincidence that she was unable to beat back to windward against 60- to 70-knot storm winds. Modern Open Class 60s are like ocean-going versions of inland lake scowsideal for reaching, but far too light and flat in the forward sections to sail effectively upwind in the awesome seas of the Southern Ocean.

Exhausted after 48 hours of close-hauled sailing and repeated knockdowns, Autissier broke off the searchonly to find herself sharply criticized by race organizer Philippe Jeantot for failing to stay in the search area longer. "I think that a race director should have better things to do at times like that than to question the honor of a competitor," she said during a post-race press conference.

Despite some defensiveness on the part of organizers and participants alike, it’s virtually certain that singlehanded marathons such as the Vendee will continue to be staged. For one thing, they are unbelievably popular with the French publicimmense crowds turn out for starts or finishes, and millions follow the races on TV. Sponsors like the Open 60s because solo campaigns are less expensive than crewed events, yet they are just as popular.

All the same, a race in which about a third of the competitors are either lost at sea or rescued from abandoned vessels is certainly cause for alarm. Interestingly, the Australian navy, which bore the brunt of the rescue effort, was cheerfully positive about the whole thing "invaluable experience" and "far better than any drill" even though the rescues cost millions of dollars. Still, despite the brave words, one has to believe that the Australian (and Chilean) governments would welcome any rule changes that made the next generation of Open 60s a bit more reliable.

In stark contrast to the featherweight flyers of the Vendee Globe, the BT Challenge yachts are the battle tanks of offshore racing. Built to survive crashing to windward for weeks on end, they keep their mostly amateur crews relatively safe, although often far from comfortable.

The Vendee Globe represents the "pure" racing that top French sailors seem to favor. The question is, will the rest of the world continue to put up with this hair-raising sport? Proposals to charge racers for rescues invariably collapse because it’s abhorrent for any mariner to even consider refusing aid to a fellow sailor in distress.

But, by the same token, the solo racing community will need to review safety regulations for events like the Vendee Globe so that the carnage of the ’96-’97 race will not be repeated. n

Contributing editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, is a marine technical writer based on the West Coast.

By Ocean Navigator