The Vendee Globe organisers don't take a view on the integrity of major repairs, but they are concerned about the spread of the fleet. Race officer David Adams talks to Elaine Bunting
For a race in which half or less of all starters manage to finish, this Vendée has had an unusual record so far. But last week, the casualties began to mount. Alex Thomson’s gooseneck failed, leaving him with a gaping hole in the deck and potentially serious structural problems for the bulkhead beneath. Hervé Laurent retired after a rudder failure, and ‘something solid’ smashed and destroyed Conrad Humphreys’s starboard rudder.
Thomson and Humphreys have both stated that will find somewhere to anchor near Cape Town and attempt repairs. Such serious repairs immediately before the two yachts enter the Southern Ocean is a possible cause for concern. Without any independent scrutiny of the quality and integrity of such repairs, isn’t it a dilemma for the race organisers to allow the skippers to carry on into the worst part of the course?
The answer is no, says David Adams, the Australian sailor who is the race officer for the Southern Ocean section of the race. “From a commonsense point of view there’s no way that anyone from the race organisation could go and check the repairs,” he says. “And also, it’s the responsibility of the skippers to accept what they do and go on. They have to convince themselves; they don’t have to convince us. If you were that silly that you were just going to paper up a repair and go back into the Southern Ocean you’d have to ask the question why bother going all the way to Cape Town to do it?”
From his point of view, the most worrying facet of the race is how far the fleet has stretched out. “Nobody quite expected it to get this spread. It’s spread to the extent that now even the front two are getting to a dangerous stage – it would take three or four days for the next guy to catch them if they got into trouble,” he says.
Adams believes that by the time they reach the longitude of Australia, the backmarkers will be well over 2,000 miles behind. “The first guys will probably be back in Les Sables d’Olonne before [Norbert Sedlacek] has even hit the Atlantic, I reckon. But he seems to be there to complete the trip, so he’s not going to take the risks and will stay further north,” he comments.
Nevertheless, the increasing separation is a worry, “and it’s a big debate at the start,” Adams concedes. Equally, though, he believes it is an inevitable part of the race. ” When I walked down the dock there I had three groups in my mind, but as a race organiser you can’t stop the back group. If they’ve done all the qualification, they got just as much a right to go there as the others.”
He does not think the greater number of waypoints in this race will benefit the boats chasing from behind. “With these waves of fronts going through you get this constant rubber band effect, but I don’t think there will be an advantage. In fact, I think in a certain way it will slow the backmarkers down.
“Normally, the only thing that would be left open to them would be to go south, shorten the route and take a lot more risks, but since the waypoints take that option away from them it will be very difficult to gain on the guys in front. It doesn’t matter how hard you push or how many risks you take, it’s very hard to close a gap that’s one system apart – as it is now.”
In an average Southern Ocean season, the Indian Ocean is the worst section, with more frequent storms and more punishing sea states. From the race organisers’ point of view, however, it’s easier to get help to competitors in the middle of the Indian Ocean than in the much more remote Pacific.
“Kerguelen’s not too bad because we have a lot of assets there,” Adams explains. “There are quite big fishing boats in that area that the French have access to. But there’s really nothing there between New Zealand and Chile. You can’t get planes, there aren’t a lot of ships and the fishermen that are there don’t want to let anyone know. On the other hand, in the Pacific the weather seems to be better: the ocean’s a different colour, the sun tends to come out occasionally and the whole thing just seems a bit better than the Indian.”
Despite keeping a vigilant eye on each skipper’s situation, even the race organisers don’t always know about problems on board the yachts. “We are only told what they want to tell us, and they won’t tell us if they’re trying to keep a secret,” says Adams.
“One of the things we said in the skipper’s briefing was: ‘Look, we understand tactically why you have to do it, but for your safety it would be better for us to know if you’ve got a small problem. We assure you it will not get out to the media, but we can then at least monitor you and let people know what may happen.’
“Having said that, they don’t necessarily trust us 100 per cent. So, yes, people do keep a lot of things under their hats, but they’ll only say nothing if they can maintain their boatspeed. If that drops, everyone can see something’s wrong.”