Could a decision to add new waypoints for the Vendee Globe spell the end of fleet races going into the Southern Ocean proper?

Races that go deep into the Southern Ocean may be a thing of the past, following the Vendée Globe organisers’ decision to introduce gate waypoints at the behest of Australian search and rescue authorities. In future, it is likely that other round the world race organisers will follow suit.

These new gates are not, as in the past, ice avoidance marks, but in effect rescue perimeter points and their positions mean that the furthest south the boats will go is Cape Horn at 57°S. Technically, none of the Vendée yachts will touch the Southern Ocean proper, which, as defined by the International Hydrographic Organization, begins at 60°S.

It makes this Vendée Globe quite different to previous Vendées, BOC races and indeed the westabout Global Challenges. Waypoints nonetheless allowed yachts to follow a route that sometimes traced as far south as 62 or 63°S, to the extremes for which these events are famous. That is unlikely to happen again, except for individual record attempts.

The Australian authorities were mindful of the difficulties and expense of rescuing Tony Bullimore and Thierry Dubois in the 1996 race, which reportedly cost AUS$10 million. Canberra Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre made it ‘very clear’, say the organisers, that if the Vendee Globe did not insert gates that funnelled the fleet within 1,500 miles of military bases, Orion and Hercules rescue planes would not be scrambled to an incident.

The reactions of the sailors have been mixed. Some believe that that by constraining the route, the gates remove one risk only to add another. “The person who’s sat in Australia and made these decisions has no concept of the Vendée Globe and no concept of the dangers of doing such a thing,” commented Mike Golding. “A single waypoint, a single gate is not a problem. The problem is that there are several in conjunction which effectively forms almost a line we can’t cross. And that’s the danger of it. You won’t have the manoeuvrability to dodge a weather system if it’s looking grim.”

He points out that fixed gates which cannot later be changed could present other unwanted problems. “I’ve done the waypoint thing before on other races and sometimes I’ve sailed to them – completely off the course to the finish line – only to find that the waypoint itself is surrounded by ice. Then I’ve gone round the waypoint and come out of the ice, yet every boat behind me has known that, from that moment on, that they’re about to sail into it. It’s a ridiculous scenario, and not being able to move the waypoints once the race has started I think is a mistake.”

David Adams, who is based in Australia and is race officer for the fleet between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, vehemently disagrees with these criticisms, in particular that the gates could force sailors into storms. “I can’t agree with that. There’s nobody who goes south when a storm’s coming to them. And the gates are 400 miles wide. There’s plenty of room for them to go into an area and avoid weather – that’s a full day’s passage.

“It’s like putting a chicane in a Formula 1 car race,” he adds. “They put that there purely for safety reasons. We’re asking sailors to come up there for their own benefit and working that out tactically is a challenge they’ve all got to confront. The days of playing Russian roulette have gone. If you’re asking people to risk their lives to save you, and you expect this to happen, you must listen to both sides of the argument.”

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, race director of Five Oceans – the former Around Alone – also dismisses the criticisms and says that there will be similar waypoints forcing solo sailors north in the next edition of his race. “It makes sense for a couple of reasons,” he says. “One: it’s equal – all the sailors have to do it. So you can’t, as a competitor, really complain if we put in a mark of the course.

“The other reason is that confidence in the boats and the races was damaged a few years ago and it’s up to those of us who are interested in this as a sport to go along with anything that is proving to the authorities and the public that we are taking safety very, very seriously and we are very prepared to co-operate.

“As a competitor, you don’t dream you’re going to get into trouble, but boy when you do – if you do – you’ll be so glad they put these marks in.”