As seven skippers are penalised for breaking collision regulations Alex Thomson is unfairly tarnished for pointing it out

Alex Thomson is unfairly taking the brunt of vilification by Vendée Globe race followers after the announcement today of penalties given out to yachts that infringed the Cape Finisterre traffic separation zone (TSS) on 12 November.

There are scores of negative and potentially libellous comments about Thomson on the Vendée Globe website, and it’s a great shame to see a competitor so exposed for want of a full explanation of how sailing and its rules work.

The rules in question are extremely important and, as I’ve written recently, go beyond competitive advantage to the integrity of this race and the respect these professional skippers owe to other mariners making a hard living at sea. Unfortunately, Thomson is taking the rap on this occasion for the failure of race committees – and the Vendée Globe is only one of many – that should really be taking a firmer line on enforcing collision regulations and international rules of safety at sea.

The penalties that have been given out vary in severity, but more on that in a moment. First, here’s the background.

Back on 12 November, Alex Thomson gybed to avoid the TSS, as is required by international collision regulations and the race’s sailing instructions, only to see a number of other skippers gain a tactical advantage by carrying on. He reportedly contacted the race committee, which informed him that in order to take action he’d have to protest.

So he did, and the result is the penalties announced today: a two-hour stop-and-go penalty for Synerciel, Mirabaud, Acciona, Initiatives Coeur and Energa, a 30 minute penalty for Mike Golding on Gamesa and 20 minutes for JP Dick on Virbac Paprec 3.

The committee explained: ‘…none of the boats protested were obliged to [enter the TSS] for safety reasons, so the crossing of the TSS is to be considered as a tactical choice that may have given these boats an advantage on the rest of the fleet.’

The document explains that ‘Synerciel, Mirabaud, Acciona, Initiatives Coeur, Maitre Coq and Energa sailed through the TSS for durations from 75 minutes to three hours’, that ‘Gamesa sailed about ten minutes in the [eastern] lane’ and that ‘Virbac Paprec 3 crossed the eastern separation zone and when realising she was entering the traffic lane, immediately gybed onto port to leave the TSS. Virbac entered the lane by about 150 metres.’

I’m not sure how this sliding scale of penalties was calculated. But Mike Golding has to take a penalty 300% of his time in the TSS, whereas the boat or boats in it for three hours have a 67% penalty.

I’m told by his team that Golding is ‘considering his position’. As far as I know the only option that would be open to him is to appeal to the committee or to request redress on the basis that he has been comparatively disadvantaged.

Apparently one of the skippers (we don’t know which) has already taken the penalty while in the Doldrums.

This situation is not unique to the Vendée Globe, but the reason it is so significant here is in the effect on public perception. Race organisers want sailing to be more popular and have greater appeal to a general public, but in parallel they also need to do much more to explain and defuse the legitimate mechanism of the racing rules.

It might also be better if more race organisers followed the example of the MOD70 and Figaro races by marking certain areas as complete no-go zones for competitors with a standard, swingeing penalty for straying there. Remove the temptation.