Seaworthy enough?

The late Michel Etevenon — a founding father of the vibrant extreme-sailing scene that now thrives in France — organized the Route du Rhum (from St. Malo, France, to Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe) in 1978 because a cadre of prominent French racers felt that the British organizers of the OSTAR (Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race) were needlessly cramping their style. Two years earlier, Alain Colas, one of the greatest sailors of his era, had successfully soloed the 235-foot four-masted, steel schooner Club Méditerranée across the North Atlantic, but stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy in the process.

Much has changed during the ensuing quarter century. More to control costs than anything else, both the French-based Offshore Racing Multihull Association and the International Monohull Open Class Association have long since settled on a maximum length overall of 60 feet. Each class has its own circuit, but they come together for prestigious long-distance events, such as the double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre and, of course, the Route du Rhum.

For Open 60 single-handers the top prize has become the Vendée Globe in recent years, although winning the Rhum certainly ranks a close second. But for the ORMA skippers, the quadrennial trans-Atlantic dash is still the biggest prize in sailing and the ultimate focus of every program. So it was in this context that 18 awesome 60-foot trimarans — by far the largest ORMA fleet ever fielded — flashed across the starting line at St. Malo on Nov. 11, aiming for the Caribbean.

Skidding off track

Shockingly, before this record fleet even passed the Azores, three days of extraordinarily nasty weather had reduced it to a shambles. At press time, six days into the race, just three ORMA trimarans were still on the course, while three others had ducked, at least briefly, into port with intentions of returning to the fray. Over a dozen skippers were either awaiting salvage at sea, limping toward safety or sidelined with crippling breakdowns. Not surprisingly, other fleets in the Route du Rhum also suffered significant attrition, but nothing like the decimation of the ORMA fleet.

No doubt, a vocal chorus will again question whether radical multihulls have any business racing in these single-handed marathon events. Clearly, however, it would be premature to draw any firm conclusions. What follows is my attempt to overview a potentially explosive situation, hopefully in a reasonably objective manner.

Unfortunately for ORMA, this crisis comes at the end of an exceptionally challenging season that has already produced a rash of expensive failures, particularly of wing masts and crossbeams. No doubt there will be much analysis and discussion this winter in hopes of making these high-strung machines more reliable. Campaign costs are generally at least $1.5 million per year, even before major breakdowns, so team sponsors will, no doubt, be particularly eager to see their boats finishing races next season, not laid up in yards for months at a time. To survive as a sport, this sort of racing needs to be exciting and dramatic, but also a consistent source of good publicity for the sponsors — a tricky balancing act at the best of times.

Trimaran evolutions Gilles Martin-Raget

The ORMA circuit is more like Grand Prix motor racing than anything else in contemporary sailing. As in Formula 1, success in ORMA rests largely with the technical expertise of designers, builders and a small army of professional shore crew known as prepareurs. The latter are frequently aspiring pro sailors in their own right who often race aboard the trimarans in the fully crewed events. These lightweight but enormously stable boats generate huge sail and rigging forces &mdash roughly on a par with the 80-foot America’s Cup boats &mdash so it takes plenty of muscle as well as skill to realize their full potential. Of course, for the Route du Rhum and the double-hand Transat Jacques Vabre, it’s necessary to reconfigure the gear layout for single- and short-handing efficiency and to sail a lot more conservatively.

Trimarans, as opposed to catamarans, are the exclusive choice for ORMA racing, primarily because the 60-foot rule stipulates maximum length and rig height (30 meters), but imposes no limits on beam. Assuming constant weight, a multihull’s width will be directly proportional to its lateral stability. So even the oldest active ORMA boats have retrofitted longer crossbeams to “square up” their platform sizes. Several of the new-generation boats &mdash Sodebo, Bonduelle and TIM &mdash are actually a little wider than 60 feet. Obviously, it’s challenging enough to engineer a boat with 28-foot crossbeams, let alone the mammoth 55-footers required for a comparable catamaran platform. The central hull of the trimaran also provides a rigid central spine that helps sustain mast compression and headstay/main-sheet loads. And unlike a catamaran, the underwater shape of the tri’s main hull can be optimized for minimal resistance in light wind conditions, while the float shapes are normally biased toward high speeds and brisk winds. Three rudders have become the norm because ORMA sailors often “fly” two hulls, using helm corrections and small adjustments of the hydraulically actuated main sheet to keep the boat balanced with just the leeward float contacting the water.

Foil-borne sailing &mdash the next logical step in this evolution &mdash is already a reality for some of the ORMA trimarans, given suitable reaching conditions. It’s now standard practice to fit the floats with inward-sloping daggerboards that produce vertical lift as well as lateral resistance. The most advanced versions feature inward-curving, radiused foils &mdash difficult to fabricate, but theoretically more efficient in their dual role.

For several years now, ORMA trimaran rigs have been fitted with hydraulic shroud adjusters so they can be hauled bolt upright when the sailing platform is heeling about 15�. As an ordinary sailboat heels, a portion of the sail force is directed downward, while the opposing hydrodynamic keel force slants upward as well as to windward. Canting the rig will eliminate the downward component of the sail force without precluding a powerful upward component from immersed canted foils.

At their current level of development, the ORMA tris are best described as hybrid foilers &mdash primarily supported by buoyancy in most conditions but capable of “lift off” when the speed exceeds about 30 knots. Hydrofoil sailing is a notoriously tricky business, plagued by problems like pitch control, foil stalling, ventilation and wave-induced instability. However, by continuing along their current developmental path, there’s a decent chance that the ORMA trimarans will soon be fully foil-borne at lower speeds and in a much broader range of sea conditions. A breakthrough here would almost certainly make high speeds on the open ocean a great deal more comfortable than they are today.

A brutal test

In fact, the problems that brought most of the ORMA fleet to grief during the Route du Rhum had nothing to do with hydrofoiling and a great deal to do with the particularly vicious storm conditions. A typical Route du Rhum has three stages: transiting the autumn gales of the Bay of Biscay, finding an optimal path around the light winds of the Azores high, and finally catching the southeast trades to Guadeloupe. Compared to the classic OSTAR route across the North Atlantic, there’s normally a much higher proportion of fast downwind sailing. But, of course, most of the 60-foot trimarans never made it past the first part.

The storm that hammered the 2002 Route du Rhum severely affected commercial shipping as well as raceboats. Just before press time, the broken-up supertanker Prestige was threatening western Spain with an oil spill more damaging than the Exxon Valdez disaster, so it’s fair to say that this was not an average eastern-Atlantic gale. Quite a few of the racers encountered winds of 70 knots, and one trimaran was reportedly lifted and flipped by an 80-knot blast while sailing under storm jib only. During the first three days of the race, four of the big ORMA tris capsized, and two others suffered such severe structural damage that their skippers had to abandon ship. However, thanks to excellent safety equipment and the availability of outside aid when rescue was required, there were no deaths or significant injuries.

The trimarans that came to grief included decade-old veterans as well as some of the newest in the fleet. In several cases, boats failed catastrophically while near-sister ships escaped unscathed. Course selection and position had a lot to do with survival. Skippers taking the traditional southerly course toward the Canary Islands encountered the worst conditions.

Two state-of-the-art boats, Karine Fauconnier’s Sergio Tacchini and Lo�ck Peyron’s Fujifilm, suffered complete fractures midway along the lengths of their windward floats. In each case, once proper shroud support was gone, the skippers were unable to save their masts. The upwind float of a trimaran is normally suspended comfortably above the surface but will experience occasional, violent wave strikes in severe sea conditions. Peyron believes that resonance within these extremely stiff Nomex/carbon float structures may have led to their failure, despite stress-modeling studies that indicated healthy safety margins. Certainly there are many examples of vibration-induced failures in various materials and structures, so why not sailboat hulls?

Build and break

To a large extent, progress in the 60-foot ORMA trimarans has always been achieved via the frustrating but ultimately effective “build-and-break” process. In a 1996 interview for HarborWatch, American pro sailor Tim McKegney, working at the time for team Primagaz, rather cynically observed, “It’s cheaper for the other boats to just let Primagaz break, re-group, and then copy.”

Since then, the number of trimarans on the ORMA circuit has mushroomed, accompanied by a corresponding increase in competitive intensity. A possible indication that the escalating drive to win may have encouraged some under-building in the 60-footers is the fact that five of the eight smaller Class II multihulls competing in Route du Rhum were still on the course at press time. Several of these were budget 50-foot trimarans assembled from discarded, cut-down hulls of early 60s, but with substantially smaller rigs and far less righting moment. If all goes well from here on, these five, along with five of the 60s will complete the course safely. TechnoMarine/Match TV, a five year-old ORMA 60 skippered by Swiss sailor St�ve Ravussin appeared to be headed for a new course record of around 11 days. It’s noteworthy that in the opening stages of the race, he kept well north of his competitors, thus avoiding the worst conditions. On the other hand, the leading Class II trimaran, Cr�pes Whaou! sailed by Franck-Yves Escoffier, initially dove south into the heart of the storm and nevertheless came through with flying colors.

So for now at least, firm conclusions are difficult to draw, but a blanket condemnation of the inherent seaworthiness of racing multihulls would seem a bit premature. I suspect the ORMA 60 class will weather this crisis and come back strongly next season with advanced sailing technology that may someday pave the way for practical, high-speed voyaging boats. n

Contributing Editor Sven Donaldson is a freelance marine writer and former sailmaker who is based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator