The Barcelona World Race rules's ambiguities about stops and outside assistance require serious revision

As the leaders of the Barcelona World Race finish their circumnavigation, the tail end yacht is half the world behind and perilously isolated in the Southern Ocean. It has highlighted a serious loophole in the race rules that threatens to undermine the event’s safety, one the race director agrees needs to be changed.

Yesterday Fran Palacio and Juan Merediz on Central Lechera Asturiana reported 60 knots of wind and a huge sea state as they battled their way back to New Zealand with a broken ring frame. It follows 25 days in port in Wellington in March as the pair had their broken mast rebuilt by Southern Spars and made other major repairs.

This lengthy stop left them nearly 5,000 miles behind the next placed boat and saw them returning to the Southern Ocean dangerously late in its autumn season.

Renewed pressure is being put on the pair to retire from the race. Race director Denis Horeau told me: “It’s a nonsense. It puts everybody in a bad situation: the competitors and the organisers.”

The rules of the Barcelona World Race state that yachts making a stop for repairs after Tasmania must take a 48-hour time penalty, but nowhere do they refer to a maximum time in port. It was simply never envisaged that a crew would spend almost a month carrying out a mini refit, although in hindsight the option was going to appeal most to tailenders whose victory is in finishing the course.

This situation underlines several serious anomalies in the race rules, and a continued blurring of the concept of self-sufficiency. Asked if he thinks the rules need to be changed, Denis Horeau replies: “Yes, they must change, absolutely. It is very bad.”

He takes out a ring binder with the Notice of Race and points to rule number 1.2, which clearly states that the Barcelona World Race is ‘a non-stop round the world race, without assistance’. Yet elsewhere, stops are allowed for and assistance permitted.

This contradiction has led to confusing and questionable ambiguities. There was the last-minute substitution for Alex Thomson when his newborn baby was ill and a hastily cobbled together rule change to allow a replacement skipper with precious little IMOCA 60 or short-handed experience. Now a crew has been allowed to make extensive and unlimited repairs and resume racing outside the safe season.

Quite apart from the obvious safety implications, this is puzzling to the public and appears to put commercial considerations above safety.

“The goal in allowing stops is to have as many boats as possible on the finish line and avoid the Vendée Globe effect, where 63% do not finish,” says Horeau. “This is totally different, but it is not well defined. The race says it is non-stop but the winner stopped twice. It has to clarify its concept because it is absolutely confusing.”

Horeau, who is also the race director of the Vendée Globe, says he has some ideas of how best to tighten the rules, but won’t elaborate. But he says he does not favour allowing crews to change “mast, sails or engine” and that there should be “a maximum amount of time in one stop.”

The opportunity to make very major shoreside repairs en route has also drawn attention to the watering down of the concept of outside assistance. It has become increasingly diluted in all round the world races, with shore teams routinely advising on complicated repairs and giving explicit advice and moral support.

Horeau says he is well aware of the dilemma and believes that the principle of outside assistance badly needs revision. “It’s not clear enough,” he says. “Technology now allows you very, very well to sail a boat from shore and have a skipper who only does what you want to do and you can switch the cameras on, choose the footage, edit it and send it back.

“Where should we draw the line? We need to watch out because if we don’t define what is possible and what is not we’ll saw off the branch we’re sitting on.”

It’s true that race organisers are kidding themselves if they think the public are universally accepting of this: the idea of being helped extensively by shore crews comes up quite frequently in conversation with our readers, who often neither understand nor sympathise.

Even the slighty unlikely idea of a skipper as a droid operative under remote control is gaining credence. Last year I utterly failed to convince a yachtsman about to set off on an amateur single-handed transatlantic race (one genuinely without assistance) that Ellen MacArthur hadn’t been working under minute direction from a controlling shore team when she broke the solo round the world record on B&Q.

“The frontier is not so simple,” says Horeau. “I think it’s OK to allow teams to advise on repairs as long as the skipper does it, takes the too, makes the repair, switches on the camera, edits the video and sends it. But we have to work on it. What if they get the blood analysis and tell a skipper to wake up and eat carrots?

“Technology allows you to do all that, even to sail the boat and there are some teams who are already dreaming about this.”

He adds: “Technology is not the aim of these races, human activity is the aim and technology is only the tool.”