The decision by one sponsor to sue for the costs of saving a life at sea is likely to affect insurance requirements for racing

The Transat Jacques Vabre race is over, with only the rescue of Seb Josse and ‘Jeff’ Cuzon, and salvage of BT to its demerits. Given the history of the IMOCA 60 class it could have been a lot worse.

As I blogged recently (here), I think this race has been proof of the successful battle-hardening of the latest generation of these formerly very accident prone boats.

So that’s good.

What is very bad, however, is that the class could be on the verge of changing the approach to insurance and the possibilities for litigation in future offshore races.

From next year it is probable that these solo skippers will require insurance during major races to cover the costs of being rescued, including collateral damage to another competitor. Sadly, I believe this is a precedent and precursor of major changes to the Notices of Race for other events,.

This has arisen because PRB, sponsor of Vincent Riou, decided to sue a clutch of people after Riou’s boat was damaged – and later dismasted – in his successful attempts to rescue fellow solo skipper Jean Le Cam from the upturned hull of VM Matériaux when Le Cam’s keel fell off west of Cape Horn in January.

As I reported in April (click here), PRB threatened to sue Le Cam’s company, his insurers, the Vendée Globe race organisers and race director Denis Horeau for the collateral damage and costs of shipping the boat home from Ushuaia. An independent surveyor put the total at €750,000.

Naturally, this caused a great controversy. Never before has a race organiser been held in any way responsible for the result of a rescue. It was a peculiar threat, because race organisers only ever ask skippers to assist one another; they would not and could not insist.

The decision to do so is voluntary and it has always been accepted that the manner in which a boat is directed and handled is is ‘the sole and irrevocable responsibility of the skipper’.

PRB has since dropped its claim against the race organisers and director, but is still making a claim against VM Matériaux’s insurers and Jean Le Cam’s own company. Both claims are being contested.

Race director Denis Horeau tells me that PRB suffered a serious backlash from the decision by the company’s chief executive, Jean-Jacques Laurent, to take this tack. “The whole world of sailing was absolutely horrified to hear that,” he says.

“I deeply hope that in future a sense of our maritime culture and conventions will prevail and that we can forget this matter and come back to reality and good sense.”

Nevertheless, as race director of the Barcelona World Race, the next round the world race for IMOCA 60s which begins on New Year’s Eve 2010, Horeau says that that the Notice of Race may include the requirement for all competitors to have insurance against damage to a rescuer.

“As organisers we haven’t changed our point of view but maybe we will have to ask competitors to have better insurance. There are only two solutions: either we have to be better insured or we can ask skippers to have cover for this situation.”

Horeau adds that if the organisers decided to take out insurance “it means we accept that we are responsible for such a problem. This is not the way we want to go.”

The NOR for the Barcelona World Race will be published in a couple of weeks. When it is, it may change legal responsibilities for the after-effects of a rescue for good. It would be a hard position to retreat from and eventually it could affect us all.