Casualties in all classes

often motivated to “go for broke” with radical, leading-edge designs despite the increased risk of breakdown. Two that came to grief in the 1 Star were the prerace favorites: Laurent Bourgnon’s Primagaz, the 60-foot trimaran that has set the pace on the pro circuit for the last three years, and Yves Parlier’s new Aquitaine Innovations, without question the most extreme 60-foot open-class monohull ever launched. After Bourgnon capsized in mid-ocean, another top multihull driverFrancis Joyon aboard Banque Populairegrabbed the lead and was 300 miles in front of his closest rival when he too capsized less than two days shy of the finish line. Quite a few of the unheralded amateurs also came to grief. British pub owner Peter Crowther had his boat literally sink from under him, and, after rescue, arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, without passport or money. Friends back in Devon held a fund-raiser for his air fare home. The 40-foot cold-molded wooden yacht sailed by disabled Danish sailor Jens Andersen also sank, and altogether almost 40% of the starters in classes 3 to 6 failed to complete the race. On the other hand, there were spectacular triumphs. Englishwoman Mary Falk, sailing her second 1 Star aboard a custom 35-footer, took more than a day off the class record, also beating every Class 4 boat, plus all but one from Class 3 and two in Class 2. American Alan Brutger, owner of a guest ranch in Montana, sailed his family cruiser, a Nelson Marek 45, to victory in Class 3. The Class 2 winner was the immensely popular Italian, Giovanni Soldini, who made his name in a round-the-world match race against Australian David Adams in the 1994-95 BOC. Better sponsored this time, his 50-foot Telecom Italia (formerly Kodak) now sports a state-of-the-art carbon mast and keel. Soldini led the 60-footers for the first week and shattered the existing Class 2 record by 39 hours, 22 minutes. Even more telling, he stayed ahead of every 60-foot monohull for an entire week and ultimately was only beaten by one, Class 1 winner Gerry Roufs aboard Groupe LG2, who nipped across the line less than four hours ahead of Soldini. Clearly, the best 50-foot open monohulls have become extremely close in speed to their 60-foot counterpartsan encouraging development that mirrors what has happened in the offshore multihull field since Class 1 was down-sized to 60 feet more than a decade ago. Faster than ever Compared to today’s 60-foot Class 1 trimarans, the 80-foot maxi-catamarans of the early 80s were lumbering beasts. The majority of the important race and crossing records have since fallen to a second-generation series of 60-foot tris which are faster in virtually all conditions. The 60-foot LOA limit was originally imposed for offshore racing multihulls to help control runaway costs, but high costs have again become an issue in multihull development. Building a state-of-the-art 60-footer today would leave little change out of $2 million, and the annual campaign requires a full-time team of roughly five people. There simply aren’t a lot of potential sponsors around with pockets quite this deep. The most recent of the five 60-footers currently active is Paul Vatine’s Region Haute Normandie, the last of three similar boats designed by Englishman Nigel Irens and constructed from a single set of female molds. Oldest 60 on the circuit is the 1988 Biscuits La Trinitainealso an Irens designand presently campaigned by the popular elder statesman of offshore multihull racing, Michael Birch. The five 60s enjoy close, exciting racing with final results always up for grabs, but the boat that’s most often come out on top is Primagaz skippered by the 30-year-old Swiss, Laurent Bourgnon. Designed by Peteghem/Prevost in 1990, Primagaz has an incredible beam of 57 feet, almost equal to her LOA. This gives her the lateral stability to carry the largest rig in the fleet: up to 3,315 square feet upwind. The overall beam of Irens’ boats ranges from 47 to 52 feet. These somewhat narrower boats have been optimized with a bit less sail than Primagaz, although, at 3,175 square feet and only a 12,000-pound displacement, Vatine’s Region Haute Normandie has the highest sail area/displacement ratioan almost unbelievable 96. This common feature of all these 60s (even the “narrow” and “old-fashioned” Biscuits at just 47 foot beam) is their disproportionately great lateral stability relative to fore-and-aft stability. When one of these is fully powered up and flying along with two of its three hulls clear of the water, it takes only a modest forward swing in the forces generated by the towering rig to bury the leeward bows and send the boat tumbling head-over-heels. Paradoxically, when racing singlehanded, these boats are more likely to suffer a diagonal capsize in moderate weather than extreme conditions, for reasons I will discuss a bit later. And, in fact, both Primagaz and Banque Populaire were close-reaching under full main and gennaker in winds no greater than 25 knots when disaster struck. Bourgnon capsized in the mid-Atlantic four days into the race. His rescue was hampered by the onset of a major depression that brought 50-knot winds and big seas, but he was eventually plucked off his inverted trimaran by a cargo ship. Francis Joyon’s capsize was a heartbreakerbarely more than a day from the finish line and almost 300 miles ahead of Vatine’s Region Haute Normandie, he’d appeared a sure bet for the top prize and a new race record. As it turned out, the closing stages of the race became a match race between Vatine and Loick Peyron aboard Fujicolor for line honors. With five days to go off Newfoundland, Vatine had the lead, only to have all his electronics pack it in. It proved a crippling blow, and Peyron was thereafter able to position his boat to take better advantage of the light headwinds, ultimately crossing the finish line three hours, 45 minutes ahead. The victory made Peyron the first sailor to win back-to-back 1 Stars, and only the second to ever take line honors twice (the other being Eric Tabarly in 1964 and 1976). Peyron was also only 50 minutes outside the all-time race record set by Phillipe Poupon in 1988 aboard Fleury Michon IX (now Biscuits). Skirting the ‘death zone’ As the winner Loick Peyron put it shortly after arriving in Newport, “We’re no longer sailors, we’re pilots. Everything happens very quickly. The standard has thus increased enormously in four years.” The moderate-wind, close-reaching conditions that tripped up Bourgnon and Joyon are prone to precipitate a capsize scenario that involves rapidly escalating apparent wind when the boat bears off accidentally and accelerates too quickly. High-powered sailboats, particularly multihulls, generally luff up to depower in gusts when the wind is forward of the beam and bear off to depower when the apparent is far enough aft. However, there’s an intermediate range of wind angles, graphically described as the “death zone,” in which heading up will increase the heeling force beyond the point of no return, but bearing off will cause runaway acceleration and an increase in apparent wind that brings about the same result. The situation can get out of hand in seconds, and the only way to save a capsize is generally to blow (release) the sheets. Both Bourgnon and Joyon reportedly attempted to reach their gennaker sheets when they felt their boats start to go, but neither reacted quite fast enough. Why are moderate conditions more hazardous for these 60-foot trimarans than stormy ones? Primarily because the changes in boat speed, and hence apparent wind speed, can be far larger and more abrupt. For example, when Joyon overturned, his Banque Populaire was burning along at more than 20 knots in about a 15-knot breeze when a “freak gust” pushed things over the edge. Unable to release the sheets in time, he went over, and just hours later was plucked from his overturned craft by a cargo ship. It’s worth noting that Primagaz had raced a remarkable 75,000 ocean miles without serious incident prior to the 1 STAR capsize, and the overall incident record of the 60-foot trimarans as a class is remarkably good. On the other hand, much of their racing is done with crews of two to four aboard, not when single-handed. Alone, even the toughest pro skipper must depend upon his autopilot most of the time, and even the most powerful, sophisticated autopilot can only react, not anticipate. More significantly, quick sheet releasethe only real safety-valve mechanism for these massively overpowered race boatsremains under manual control. Bourgnon is unique in having pioneered a hydraulic mainsheet system for Primagaz that can be operated from several stations around the boat. But, with or without the mainsail drawing, during a reaching capsize such as in 1 Star, the enormous gennaker alone was probably enough to put the lee bow under. At 18,700 pounds, Yves Parlier’s all-carbon Aquitaine Innovations is believed to be 20% to 30% lighter than any previous open 60-foot monohull. Although several of the forerunners in this class, including BOC winner Christophe Auguin, are following Isabelle Autissier’s lead in developing swing keels for extra stability, Parlier has opted for tried-and-true water ballast. His spectacular (and highly controversial) innovation is above decks: a multihull-style rotating wing mast carrying what may be the largest mainsail yet seen on an open 60. Because rotating rigs cannot be supported by conventional side shrouds running over fixed spreaders, it’s essential to obtain a staying base considerably wider than even Innovations’ 19-foot beam. Class rules forbid “outriggers,” but a loophole in the rules permits spreaders originating at any level on the mast. Under sail, Parlier’s boat appears to have three booms, two of which are giant “spreaders” that project almost abeam, angling upward from the mast base some 28° to clear the water when heeled. The cap shrouds supporting the huge rig extend upward from the outboard ends of these enormous spreaderseach almost 21 feet long and projecting laterally beyond the rail by nearly 10 feet a side. This is not a boat you’d care to raft alongside on the annual club cruise. Parlier’s “monomaran” worked well enough for the first half of the race to prove the potency of his concept. Starting the race after just four hours of sea trials, he covered first 10 miles of the race from the Plymouth to Eddystone light at an average speed of 18 knots, not all that far behind fleet-leading Loick Peyron aboard the trimaran Fujicolor, who averaged 26 knots over the same distance. Eventual Class 2 winner Giovanni Soldini made a bold move to the north that brought him better winds and several days in the lead, but Parlier eventually ground him down again. The loss of this radical rig on the ninth day out may have been precipitated by the collapse of one of the mammoth spreaders during a gybe. Parlier withdrew and returned to France, where he’s currently overseeing the fabrication of another, somewhat stronger version of the same rig for the Vendee Globe singlehanded non-stop around-the-world race. This boat should be a deadly competitor in that contestabout to get underway at the time of this writing. On the other hand, there’s a good chance that the loophole that permitted Parlier his novel staying arrangement will be plugged before very much longer. Small and sweet Giovanni Soldini sails a 50-foot Jean Berret designone of the few contemporary open-class monohulls not designed by Group Finot. But like the Finot boats, Telecom Italia is super-wide, is ultra-light, and carries an enormous sail plan. Driven hard by a brilliant, determined skipper, Telecom was the fifth boat across the finish line in Newport, only three hours, 21 minutes behind Class 1 winner Gerry Roufs aboard the 60-foot Group LG2. Another advanced Class 2 entry, the radical swing-keeler Aqua Corum, sailed by Briton Peter Goss, also enjoyed some moments of glory near the head of the fleet before suffering damage in a severe knockdown. All the same, these powered-up 50s have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to very nearly keep pace with the 60s in both light air and at planing speeds. Because they come in at approximately 60% the cost of a 60-footer, they may also arrive at the starting line somewhat better prepared, which could be enough to make up the difference. Soldini won’t be attempting the Vendee Globe, but Goss expects to be one of perhaps two 50 entries competing boat-for-boat against competitors 10 feet longer. I suspect that sooner or later a 50 will likely take line honors in an open-class monohull event, much as 60-foot trimarans have eclipsed the performances of the 80-foot maxi-cats. After being plucked from their overturned trimarans, both Joyon and Bourgnon returned with salvage teams, guided by Argos beacons they’d activated before abandoning ship. After repeated setbacks, each team succeeded in righting their boat by having a diver jettison the rig, flooding one float, and finally dragging the disabled trimaran sideways with enough force to flip it upright. Both were towed to East Coast ports where they were hurriedly patched up and fitted with old masts and sails for the Quebec-St. Malo race back to France. A storm ashore In late June, when the mid-Atlantic weather was at its worst and 1 Star competitors seemed to be dropping like flies, the old issues of marine safety and singlehanding returned to the forefront with a vengeance. In the impoverished Canadian maritime provinces, public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to the “rich playboys who had to be rescued at public expense when their crazy stunts went wrong.” Although, in fact, the actual rescues were accomplished by nearby merchant ships, Canadian search and rescue aircraft did provide support. Halifax-based Canadian Press reporter Tom McDougall wrote: “By the time Joyon kisses hello to land, Canadian taxpayers will have kissed good-bye to $66,390 spent sending search planes out to find and watch over him and one of his biggest rivals, Laurent Bourgnon.” It’s not clear whether these negative reports took into account the ongoing costs of manning search and rescue aircraft, whether they are flying or on standby, but that’s really beside the point. Coming at a time when a cash-strapped Canadian Coast Guard has de-staffed most light stations, the seagoing citizens of the maritimes were in no mood to see any resources devoted to something as frivolous as a sailboat race. It’s also not an issue that is likely to be resolved soon because there will always be people who will rise to the challenge of racing solo offshore and would doubtlessly continue to do so whether the official safety nets were in place or not. All five Class 1 trimarans made the start of the Quebec-St. Malo crewed race on August 8, although Primagaz and Banque Populaire had been hurriedly repaired after their offshore capsizes six weeks earlier. Primagaz took considerable water aboard through leaks in her stern during the dash down the St. Lawrence and had to struggle to even stay in the race, but Banque Populaire reached France less than four hours behind the winner, Fujicolor. With the final event of the circuit about to get underway at the time of this writing, Primagaz maintains a 10-point lead in the FICO-Lacoste World Championship and may well win this title for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, much of the sailing world’s attention has turned to the Vendee Globe, a non-stop, solo circumnavigation from Europe, around Antarctica, and back for open monohulls up to 60 feet. Whether sponsors will chose to back new 60-foot multihull projects in the wake of the Vendee or put their resources into the somewhat less costly monohull campaigns remains to be seen. Certainly, at the moment, the momentum has swung to the monos, and should the performance gap continue to narrow, it’s not impossible that 50-footers may eventually be anointed the premier class for this type of racing.

By Ocean Navigator