Breakthroughs and breakdowns

Earlier this year, the Vendée Globe and The Race combined forces to put adventure sail racing on the world stage as never before. For several weeks, millions of fans, including a great many who had never so much as set foot aboard a sailboat, were captivated by the closely fought contest among rival single-handed skippers that climaxed in the riveting, last-leg duel between Michel Desjoyeaux and Ellen MacArthur. Meanwhile, the enormous catamarans of the Race were establishing new, much higher standards for offshore sailing performance. For the top boats like Club Med and Innovation Explorer, it was often a matter of “another week, another ocean.” As Jules Verne record-holder Oliver de Kersauson put it, “We will [from now on] talk about before The Race and after The Race. This is the beginning of a new way of racing round the world.”

From the viewpoint of the amateur bluewater sailor, both events merit close examination. There’s a great deal of useful information to be gleaned from these ocean racing marathons, even when one’s only goal is making safe, comfortable passages on relatively non-demanding routes. Clearly, there’s a growing dichotomy between traditional, no-hurry ocean sailing (the Tahiti ketch school of voyaging, if you like) versus a more up-pace style of offshore sailing aboard modern yachts with sufficient speed to take proper advantage of the detailed, timely weather information now available.

Of course, the ultra-fast catamarans of the Race are now the ultimate in this regard (see “Routing the Race,” Issue No.114, May/June 2001). Unlike the Volvo/Whitbread 60s that achieve their best runs while surfing big waves in strong following winds, this new breed of giant cats performs best when routed to bypass overly strong winds and rough seas (much as the typical voyaging sailor would, in principle, seek to do). True, at racing speeds of 25 knots and up, the big cats still managed to be supremely uncomfortable and sometimes violent enough to cause serious physical injury. However, by applying the same routing principles, but throttling back considerably except in light air, the crew of any high-performance offshore boat has a better chance of achieving quick passages while avoiding the misery of protracted gale-force winds. Much like planing power craft, these sailboats will typically have more power and raw speed potential than they can comfortably use in less-than-optimum conditions. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to achieve this level of performance without sacrificing reliability, durability, and overall user-friendliness. It’s in these considerations that the experiences of solo marathoners in events like the Vendée become particularly relevant because amateur voyagers sailing shorthanded must often deal with similar challenges.

Impacts and injuries

When driven hard, it turns out that a narrow-hulled catamaran is no more comfortable than a beamy open 60 – only faster. For that matter, any lightweight boat with plenty of reserve buoyancy and the sail power for very high speeds is bound to “skip across waves” to a considerable extent. More ominously, the big cats in The Race were prone to unpredictable and violent “crash-stops” when a leeward bow jammed hard into a wave. Crewmembers were sometimes catapulted into obstructions and occasionally suffered significant injuries. After two hair-raising episodes of “going down the mine,” Team Adventure was forced to pit stop in Cape Town to repair impact damage on a forward crossbeam structure and to put two crewmembers ashore for treatment of neck and pelvic injuries. At this point, two other, obviously shaken crewmembers elected to disembark for “personal reasons.” Later, during Team Adventure’s (second) repair stop in Wellington, New Zealand, Cam Lewis lost a fifth crewmember when doctors decided to sideline Yann Eliès due to a slipped disc. As a result, the starting crew of 14 was ultimately reduced to nine. Interestingly, Team Adventure’s overall performance suffered little – perhaps because the big U.S. cat was loaded more lightly and sailed a bit more conservatively than early in The Race.

The other big cats also reported some injuries. Roman Paszke’s Polish crew aboard Warta Polpharma, the smallest entry in The Race, elected to put ashore two crew in Brazil: Richard Block, who had suffered a back injury, and Piotr Cichocki, who had a severely abscessed leg. Tony Bullimore’s ill-fated Team Legato lost no fewer than four crewmembers to assorted injuries; and following a 60-hour medical and repair stopover in Wellington had to carry on with a crew of six. Not too surprisingly, the crews least affected by injury were the front runners – Club Med and Innovation Explorer, although both crews were banged about at times and reported some close calls. Perhaps, however, if racing speeds continue to escalate, the day may come when crash helmets and shock-absorbing “work stations” become a necessity for this sort of racing, much as fighter pilots rely upon pressurized suits to withstand high G-forces.

The Vendée fleet fared better when it came to averting race-ending injuries. Only one skipper, Patrick de Radiguès, was forced out specifically for this reason. Shortly after the start, Patrick ran ashore in Portugal when he slipped during a gybe and was knocked unconscious by the rim of a winch. About two months later, Russian sailor Fedor Konyukhov was forced to seek medical attention ashore because of a fast-deteriorating kidney condition, but there was no indication that physical trauma had been involved.

French sailor Catherine Chabaud cracked a lumbar vertebrae (the result of a bad fall midway through the race), but was nevertheless holding seventh place when her rig collapsed at the lower spreaders with less than 600 miles left to sail. Quite likely her debilitating back injury influenced her decision to fire up the engine and withdraw rather than attempting to set up a jury rig under very difficult conditions. Already the first woman to complete a Vendée Globe race (1996-7), Chabaud had little left to prove, but coming so close in her final solo circumnavigation race was clearly a huge disappointment.

Rig and fitting failures

Only five hours after the Vendée start, Mike Golding, the most-favored British entry, dismasted while reaching in just 15 knots of wind. Golding was at a total loss to explain how his meticulously prepared open 60 had failed catastrophically in such moderate conditions, and since almost the entire rig had gone overboard, it was impossible to attribute blame. Golding and his shore team immediately set to work re-rigging with a spare mast, and just more than eight days later he managed to re-join the race. In the end, a superb seventh-place finish, and an elapsed time (after restart) that was fourth best in the fleet, just hinted at what might have been.

During the previous Vendée and Around Alone races, mainsail luff tracks and batten terminals have failed with noticeable regularity, and once again there were several problems in this area. One victim was Roland Jourdain sailing Sill Matines La Potagère. The popular Frenchman known as “Bilou” had been forced back to Sables d’Olonne shortly after the start (for emergency halyard and dental repairs), but had subsequently sailed through the entire the fleet to briefly capture the lead. He remained in the top three nearly all the way around to Cape Horn when he belatedly revealed that he’d been seriously handicapped since soon after entering the Indian Ocean. A fractured track section several meters below the masthead had prevented Sill’s main from being hoisted above the second reef level; to make matters worse, he’d lost the use of his genoa because the upper portion of the luff rope had torn away from the furling extrusion.

Faced with the headwinds and often light airs of the final Atlantic leg, Jourdain decided to make repairs while anchored in the lee of a small island just past Cape Horn. Although hampered by freezing temperatures and gale-force winds, he managed to replace the damaged track with a section of track from just above the boom. This made it possible to fully hoist the main again, but the genoa remained inaccessible, and the fragile track repair made it unhealthy to use the first reef. All the same, “Bilou” attacked the Atlantic with vigor, regained third place from Marc Thiercelin, and for a time appeared to have a shot at the leading pair. At the end, he took third spot on the podium, shortly after sailing 435 miles in 24 hours – a new record for solo monohulls.

Vendée winner Michel Desjoyeaux also revealed a mainsail luff problem – disintegrated batten cars that had sprinkled ball bearings on deck with a sound like a hailstorm. He, too, had kept the failure under his hat so as not to encourage the competition. In light of these and similar problems, it would appear that mast track and batten car systems should not be taken for granted. Full-length battens and big-roach mainsails impose concentrated loads on thin aluminum tracks that, in many cases, are attached to carbon-fiber masts with just a handful of mechanical fasteners.

Without question, one of the all-time triumphs of jury rigging was accomplished last January by Yves Parlier while anchored at Steward Island on the southern tip of New Zealand. A month earlier, Parlier had broken his mast while pushing Aquitaine Innovations extremely hard in an effort to regain the lead he’d enjoyed for the first few weeks of the race. Fortunately, the lower 12 meters of the broken mast remained standing, securely supported by lower shrouds led far outboard to the ends of long deck-level spreaders (a rigging arrangement Parlier had pioneered with this boat back in 1994). He also managed to recover the upper mast, which he lashed on deck. He then set up a small jury rig (quadruple-reefed main plus storm jib) that enabled him to run downwind at five to seven knots. At these speeds, there was no possibility of finishing the Vendée before starving to death; but having been forced out of the previous Vendée with rudder damage, Parlier was absolutely determined to achieve an official finish. As he slowly bore down on Steward Island, he prepared the stage for a monumental re-rigging job.

The Vendée Globe rules preclude any form of direct outside assistance, but a sailor is permitted to anchor (under sail only), and even to set foot ashore below the high tide mark. After some difficulties, including a brief grounding, Parlier managed to settle in a protected river mouth where he set to work re-building his carbon-fiber rig. Using tackles and a gin pole system, he lowered the remaining 12-meter mast, and sawed the broken ends of both sections off square. Then, after meticulously aligning the two sections, he spliced them back together using a splint fabricated from a short portion of the lower mast. The repair consumed almost every milliliter of epoxy in Parlier’s scanty repair kit, and he needed to heat the joint area with a battery of light bulbs to obtain an adequate cure. Afterward, the re-built mast – now a healthy 18 meters tall – was re-erected and rigged with both upper and lower shrouds. The original staysail now flew from the hounds, while the main could be raised to the second reef level.

Racing to depart ahead of an approaching storm, Parlier returned to sea only nine days after arriving at Steward Island. Once underway, he set about bisecting his genoa to create a larger jib plus a modest spinnaker. With his much-enlarged jury rig, Parlier was able to sustain over 10 knots for substantial portions of the 5,500-miles voyage back to France. His greatest problem along the way was very short rations. After a supply of mussels he’d gathered at Steward Island ran out, he managed to catch a few small fish and collect quantities of floating seaweed. The latter mainly helped to stave of hunger pangs as he divided and sub-divided his dwindling stock of preserved foods. Two months after leaving Stewart Island he arrived in Sables d’Olonne to a hero’s welcome.

Although the Vendée fleet experienced a mixed bag of other rig problems, ranging from a cracked spreader to a broken rod forestay, only halyard failures occurred with noticeable regularity. Halyard wear at exit boxes is a problem well-known to offshore sailors, but the enormous strength of advanced fibers such as Spectra makes it tempting to go for minimum halyard diameter and weight.

Among the out-sized cats of The Race, there were no dismastings, but at least one very close call. Just three days before their finish at Marseilles, Club Med’s crew discovered a lower shroud terminal worn virtually to the point of failure. It was beefed up with supplementary lashings. Otherwise, the main rigging headache was the surprising number of pad-eyes, shackles, and so forth that failed under loads. As Grant Dalton explained in a mid-race radio interview, “If we had a Whitbread-type stopover in Cape Town we’d probably change a whole load of fittings on board to make them stronger. The crews have done a really good job with spare parts. They haven’t brought a lot, but they manage to bring something out from down below that will do the job just fine every time we have a breakage. Being at sea makes you resourceful.”

Marathon sails

For the most part, the sails in both the Vendée and The Race proved remarkably trouble free considering the abuse they must have sustained. Both the monster cats and open class monohulls have enormous rigs and only modest manpower to expedite sail handling. Even routine procedures like reefing and headsail changes often took upwards of 15 minutes.

When sails did fail, it was most often the result of dragging in the water following a knockdown or halyard failure. Ellen MacArthur was particularly hard hit, and at one point lost the use of nearly all her bread-and-butter reaching sails: both Code 5s, the gennaker, and one of her two spinnakers. However, she eventually managed to patch up the gennaker enough to use – no mean feat considering the North 3-DL construction with full-length reinforcing fibers extending corner-to-corner.

Team Adventure sported a full complement of Cuben fiber sails – the first time this exotic and very costly composite has been tested in a race of this duration. According to her crew, these sails proved extremely fast, rugged, and essentially trouble free. Steve Fossett’s PlayStation was forced to replace their new Cuben fiber main only hours into The Race because a reef patch failed, but this appears to have been more a construction problem than a fabric deficiency. As Brian Hancock suggests in a recent article (“Voyaging Sails Ahead,” Issue No. 114, May/June 2001) Cuben fiber could someday have a rosy future for high-end voyaging sails. Naturally, volume production would be necessary to achieve more widespread availability and anything approaching affordable prices.

Primary structural failures

The Vendée fleet reported no significant hull problems despite the fact the open 60s now have heavier keels and greater righting moment than in the past. Evidently the marine architects and builders involved have a good idea of what constitutes adequate scantlings for this sort of race boat – knowledge that should translate well to future generations of high-performance voyagers.

When it came to the big cats of The Race, there was far less experience to draw upon. Even Giles Ollier – chief designer of the four most successful entries – had never done a racing boat on this grand a scale. Team Adventure suffered substantial damage to her forward crossbeam fairing soon after entering the Southern Ocean. An attempt to repair the damage at Cape Town within 48 hours ran overtime, but still failed to hold up at sea. Consequently, Cam Lewis’ crew had to pit-stop again at Wellington for a more thorough (and apparently successful) fix.

Immediately after winning The Race, Grant Dalton revealed that Club Med had experienced a similar failure in the area where the main crossbeam joins the starboard hull. Crewmembers Neal MacDonald, Ed Danby, and Jan Dekker used interior hatch covers as patches to help stabilize the failing structure. To secure these patches, they scavenged fasteners from all over the boat. When Club Med finished, her generator was attached to the hull by a single bolt!

The former Commodore Explorer, now racing under the Polish flag as Warta Polpharma, developed a two-meter foredeck crack that was temporarily repaired at sea by bonding on sections of a spare mainsail batten. Soon after, her crew decided to pause in Brazil, where two team members were sent off for medical attention and further hull repairs were made. Sadly, deteriorating weather conditions during this 48-hour stop-over probably cost the Poles the chance of an official finish (within 30 days of the first boat across the line).

Foil problems

As in the past, keels and daggerboards were something of an Achilles heel for the Vendée fleet. Three boats were forced to withdraw due to collision damage, and three others were wounded but able to continue. Eric Dumont withdrew when a serious split developed in one carbon fiber rudder shaft shortly after his Euroka struck a semi-submerged tree trunk; while Javier Sanso retired after losing a rudder in a collision with an unknown object. Thomas Coville, an early front runner, damaged a rudder by hitting a whale, but he was able to make repairs and even survive a second collision. Likewise, Ellen MacArthur overcame a collision that sheared away half of one daggerboard and the tip of one rudder. Her remaining asymmetrical daggerboard had been designed so it could be inverted and slipped into the opposite trunk if necessary. This was a rather challenging maneuver because the board was 12 feet long and weighed 60 pounds. Nevertheless, she got the job done, and remained in contention to the end. Race winner Michel Desjoyeaux, well aware of the history of rudder damage in open class racing, came up with a particularly ingenious kick-up rudder design for PRB. Each transom-mounted rudder head incorporates an elegant retraction mechanism that allows the blade to swing back and invert with a moderate application of force. By raising the rudder on the windward side, both hydrodynamic drag and the risk of damage from debris are substantially reduced. Quite early in The Race, the ill-starred PlayStation broke a daggerboard – very likely the final straw that triggered her retirement. Clearly, as the speeds of ocean racing boats continuing to rise, underwater foil vulnerability is emerging as an issue that demands greater attention. And like quite a few other sailing issues that have been highlighted recently thanks to racing, this is something the voyaging sailor too might wish to take into account.

By Ocean Navigator