PRB is threatening to sue Vendée race organisers and a host of others for €750,000


The race may be over, but the Vendée Globe has just dropped one of its biggest bombshells – one that ought to bring race organisers everywhere out in goosebumps.

The prospect is of the race being mired, America’s Cup style, in litigation. But it has much wider implications. This dispute is over who should bear the financial consequences of saving a life at sea, something that until now no-one has dared publicly place a price on.

One sponsor now has. PRB, backers of Vicent Riou, says it cost them ?750,000 to cover the costs of rescuing of Jean Le Cam near Cape Horn in January – and they want someone else to pay it back.

Vincent Riou damaged PRB’s deck spreader when he hit the keel of the upturned VM Matériaux trying to get close enough to rescue Le Cam. Several days later, at the entrance to the Beagle Channel, the mast came down. The boat was repaired, shipped back to France and a new mast is being built.

To recoup its costs, PRB is investigating possible legal action against the race organisers, race directors, the owners of VM Matériaux, the boat’s underwriters and Jean Le Cam. The move is being led by PRB’s chief executive, Jean-Jacques Laurent. Riou says he is not involved but “welcomes the initiative”.

PRB’s statement says: ‘The company spoke at the time of its pride at Vincent Riou’s rescue and we reiterate that today. There is no debate about the solidarity of the sea, indeed PRB would consider the reverse unethical. But there is another side to it: the heavy financial consequences PRB bears as a result of the operation.

‘The company estimates the cost of the damage during the rescue and its consequences (loss of the mast, sails, collateral damage, shipping home) to be ?750,000, and that is not taking into account the lost possibility of winning the race. Such damage will not be covered by the insurance company which, as with most of the IMOCA 60s, covers only total loss.’

Speaking about this unprecedented situation, race director Denis Horeau told me: “I don’t understand and the Vendée Globe doesn’t understand their position.

“They asked for some money to pay the repairers and the Vendée Globe refused, saying they had no responsibility for the repairs, that they had done nothing wrong from an organisation point of view. They are not suing yet but they are saying ‘We need to recover this much money from any of you’.”

An expert has been appointed to assess what damage was done as a direct result of the dismasting and will inspect PRB on 10 April but, says Horeau, “the Vendée Globe will not be any part of it.”

The dispute raises some very serious questions about shouldering the responsibilities of rescue at sea, something that has always played a part in the Vendée Globe.

Why is PRB, involved as a sponsor of the race for 17 years, now “going against all the relationships between competitors and all the relationships between the race organisers and competitors”, as Horeau puts it?

Maybe PRB, a small, family owned, Vendée-based building coatings firm, is fighting the tide in a field that has seen costs soar. Look at the costly evidence of that: their most expensive yacht by a country mile has had a calamitous track record: dismasted in the Barcelona World Race; abandoned and salvaged in the Transat last year; dismasted in the Vendée Globe.

The total costs of the Vendée project and its eventful run-up are potentially enormous, but it is the sailing teams and sponsors that have escalated them, not the race organisers.

And what of the insurance angle? PRB says their boat wasn’t covered for dismasting, as IMOCA 60s commonly are not. That’s true, but what they didn’t add is that it was their commercial decision. It is possible to get insurance for dismasting and some teams did; it’s just very expensive.

Asking the underwriters for money is one thing, but expecting the race organisers or the rescued skipper to pay is a very strange tack, one I wouldn’t bet on succeeding. Vincent Riou had been on the phone to Le Cam when he capsized and already knew about the incident when race director Denis Horeau called. Riou asked for the position and said he was going to Le Cam’s aid.

But no race organiser would ever require a skipper to assist, only suggest or perhaps request. Ultimately, everyone knows – and a sponsor of an ocean racing yacht certainly should be briefed and must accept – that the manner in which a vessel is conducted is ‘the sole and irrevocable responsibility of the skipper’.

And so, if the lawyers really got hold of it, what would they make of Vincent Riou’s boathandling? Would they argue that it was his responsibility the deck spreader hit VM Matériaux’s keel, that there was, at least, some percentage negligence?

I don’t see any good coming out of this unfortunate situation. If a race organiser ever has to pay for the financial consequences of a rescue, heaven help round the world races. If a skipper were to face some financial responsibility for damage to the boat, heaven help us all.

PRB risks prising open a terrible Pandora’s Box.