The Vendée Globe is without question the most challenging offshore ocean race that any sailor can undertake; 24,000 nautical miles, alone, non-stop, and without assistance. The race starts from France just as the winter gales are sweeping across the Bay of Biscay, it leaves the five big capes to port, and returns to France long before the first daisy’s push up through the snow. Adding to this enormous challenge is the fact that the modern IMOCA 60 sailboats are some of the most high-tech and highly strung racing yachts ever designed and built. The boats are a handful for a full crew. In the hands of a single person they are monsters that have to be tamed and judging by some of the incredible performances from the most recent Vendée Globe some of the sailors have indeed learned how to tame their boats. Much of the credit has to go to the designers who have come up with innovative ways for a single person to manage so much power, and to engineers who have taken modern fibers and used them to build incredibly light and strong boats.
Yacht designer Rob Doyle is no stranger to the world of high-tech sailboats and he said it very succinctly when he proclaimed, “modern materials have made people look smarter.” I would add to that by noting that powerful computing has enabled engineers to take a fiber like carbon and place each fiber precisely where it can do the most good not only in the hulls, but the mast and sails as well. Doyle continued. “Going forward it’s going to be a competition between yacht designers to see who can engineer and build the lightest boats. Light boats are fast boats and fast boats are easier to manage.”
Light and fast was definitely on display in this most recent Vendée Globe as we watched the two leaders, Armel Le Cléac’h aboard Banque Populaire, and Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss match race around the course sailing at impressive speeds. As Thomson neared the finish, after pushing incredibly hard for ten straight weeks, he managed to set a new record for the most distance covered by a monohull up to 60 feet when he covered 536.81 nautical miles at an average speed of 22.36 knots. By Thomson setting this record and with the overall winner Le Cléac’h smashing almost four full days off the race time, it’s clear that huge advances were made in building very light boats that got all the way around the world relatively unscathed.
Some of the increase in overall boat speed can be attributed to the new ‘Dali Foils’ so named because they look like the distinctive mustache sported by the famous surrealist painter. The first four boats to finish the Vendée Globe had Dali Foils bringing to rest any doubt that opting to go with foils was the right decision. Prior to the start of the Vendée there was much talk about the trade-off between adding foils for what was then considered only a marginal increase in speed, and risking the chance that they could get broken off. At the end of the race Alex Thompson was asked about the risk of a foil breaking and he dismissed the idea. “Any appendage is at risk of being broken off. It does’t matter is the foil is coming out of the side of the boat or sticking out from under it. It’s a matter of luck and I got unlucky.” The unlucky reference is to an accident that happened just as Hugo Boss entered the Southern Ocean when his boat collided with something that ripped the starboard foil off. For the rest of the race Thomson was markedly slower on port tack because of the missing foil.