- Elaine Bunting
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Vendée organisers debate solo designs
As the Vendée Globe comes to an end again for another four years the discussions are turning to what changes need to be made to the format for the next edition.
Top of the agenda is changes to the boats eligible to take part. After more keel failures in this race, almost everyone agrees that something should be done, and the race organisers of the Vendée Globe have been looking carefully at whether or not they ought to move to a one-design for 2016.
There is a strong push for the IMOCA class to get its house in order by the Vendée Globe management. They know that, ultimately, they hold the cards. This is the pinnacle race for these boats and the focus of sponsorship.
To help make up their mind independently of what the current crop of skippers think, the Vendée Race management company, SEM Vendée, commissioned a report by former race winner Alain Gautier. Gautier has submitted his findings and recommendations, and a decision about the boats will be made within weeks.
"I asked Alain to give me a report on the evolution process of the boats and I gave him three objectives to look at," Bruno Retailleau, president of the race, told me. "One, the advantages and disadvantages of a one-design. Two, is that in accordance with the spirit of the race? And three, can the race be safer in one-design?"
It just so happens that Michel Desjoyeaux has a potentially suitable one-design up his sleeve in the form of the Oceans50, a modified version of the canting keel SolOceans 50 from 2008, built for a one-design race that never got off the ground. This has proved reliable, has the backing of the French Sailing Federation, and he argues it would be cheaper to build. A new build IMOCA 60 like the race-winning MACIF now runs to around €3.5 million.
Desjoyeaux has put the idea forward. There are a number of skippers who prefer the concept of a one-design in priniciple (though not necessarily this one). They feel they have nothing to fear from such a radical change. I talked to Armel Le Cléac'h about it last year and he was vehemently a fan, telling me that sharing a stock of spares and logistics would only be an advantage.
Probably the majority of current skippers are opposed to so major a change, and even the Vendée management seem to be taking the view it could be a step too far for the race. The current spectrum of designs old and new do mean it's possible for the lower-cost ‘adventurer' campaigns to take part, and race followers love spirited tailenders like Tanguy de Lamotte and Alessandro Di Benedetti who, you could argue, have a more varied and rounded story to tell.
"As well as safety we wanted to look at accessibility, and how easy it is for the younger generation and medium-sized companies to be involved. That is imperative because of the rise of costs. So we will look at that and analyse all these things and take a lot of care before deciding in March," says Retailleau.
In saying so, though, he leaves me with the impression that a compromise is already the favoured option. "We mustn't cut out the technical development, because before the start people come to see the boats as well as the sailors and they know that behind it all is technology, a human sport but also a mechanical sport," he says.
"So it could be that we look at something between these two options of a one-design and [open rule]. Maybe we could have a form of one-design [elements] in the boats. We will try to find a middle ground."
The options for a one-design keel and maybe also a change to the mast rule is soon to be discussed by skippers and voted on at the class AGM. It's been mooted before, and defeated by only a handful of votes, but this year the pressure is really on to reach a consensus for more sweeping change.
As for Desjoyeaux's 50ft one-design class, he's trying to find a place for it, but the Vendée Globe management isn't likely to bite. "I don't think we can have a double class in the race," says Retailleau. "We had in the first edition, but the fleet was so spread it was a safety issue and it would make the race more confusing and harder to understand."