Why reviving the Atlantic 'powered' record is a step backwards and nothing to boast about


So Mike Slade’s ICAP Leopard has just claimed the transatlantic record. Well done to him and his crew, but I’m bothered by the small print, which explains that this is the powered record, allowing the use of electric winches, etc. I’m told that Leopard needs to run her generator or engine almost continuously when racing and was aptly described to me last week by David Schmidt of Sail Magazine as “a sail-powered motorboat”.

A powered transatlantic record seems a very odd thing to boast about for a couple of reasons. First, the use of power seems out of kilter with sentiments (and technology) these days. Secondly, what’s the big deal about a time of 7d 19h by a crew aided by powered gear, when Mari Cha IV’s did it over a day quicker with no such assistance and one man under sail alone (Francis Joyon in IDEC) was a day faster than either?

My view on Leopard’s record chimed with a comment from reader Laurence Woodward, who’d emailed me about sailors hitting whales and continued: ‘I nearly drifted [in the Western Approaches] into a boat powered by the wind that needs a engine to tack. There’s a debate. But I guess we are all just a bunch of hypocrites.’

Now this is a very interesting subject, and I think we do have to look very closely in future at the use of power in records and races. Francis Joyon proved during his solo round the world record last year that it is possible to circumnavigate at speed using nothing more than wind power, solar power and a fuel cell.

So it is possible to have greener round the world races. Laurence is certainly right that the yachts themselves are far from green and when I talked to Mark Turner of OC Events last weeks he agreed that sailors had to be “very careful about talking of sailing as a green sport”. Like me, he thinks that a solar- or wind-powered round the world race should and will happen but at the moment it’s not possible, oddly enough because of the slow speed connecting to the internet.

Present rules for most races prevent outside assistance so sailors must go online for weather information to be competitive. These rules could be changed but sponsors will still want video conferences and video files from on board. The Fleet 77 equipment used for this is still relatively slow and the equipment incredibly power hungry; it can take 20 minutes or more to send back 3 minutes of video.

So for now engines or generators are required to satisfy sponsors’ requirements on a non-stop race. That may change as gear and internet connection times via satellites improve. And for sure we should be looking for ways to race in harmony with the elements. Reviving a powered Atlantic record is a worrying step backwards.

But a truly green event? That is a long way off.

Photo above by Rick Tomlinson