Vendée Globe designers point blame at solo skippers for disappointing results and failure rate


‘I would love to see one of the designers leave their desks for a few months and join a foredeck crew,’ a correspondent to this blog commented recently.

I think everyone who has ever gone to sea has had that thought at some stage.

Solo sailor Brian Thompson is a supremely tactful and gentle soul but he could be forgiven for feeling a rough trip upwind might be poetic justice for designer Juan Kouyoumdjian (pictured above), who has severely disrespected him for ‘only’ managing to finish 5th in the Vendée Globe in Bahrain Team Pindar.

Juan K, as he’s known, is one of the designers quoted in the French paper Sports . It has been looking at why so many boats failed to finish or underperformed.

Their reporter talked to the designers not the sailors and surprise, surprise, no turkeys voted for Christmas. The general conclusion they came to was that the outcome (in so far as it could be measured with so many failures!) came down to the performance of the skipper.

Juan K high-handedly defended his design thus: “I have my opinion, though from my chair in Valencia where the sun always shines it’s very easy to judge. I respect the skippers who finished the Vendée Globe too much, even in 5th place, not give them the benefit of the doubt.”

He said he regretted that his boat could not be sailed in a range other than that adopted by Brian Thompson, commenting: “It was rarely pushed beyond 70%.”

And he added: “I have not spoken with him since the race. We talked with Andrew Pindar, with the technical team and had very good relations with them, but that’s not case with Brian. It was thought he was going to do the Vendée Globe with another state of mind, somehow.”

[The implication here, in French, is that Thompson wasn’t competitive or aggressive enough.]

“The lesson is that even if Pindar has the potential to go very quickly, this potential is limited by the ability of a solo sailor to use the boat If you ask Michel Desjoyeaux, you will be much closer to an answer than if you ask another sailor.”

Of course the designers are right that the biggest variable in a solo race is the single-handed skipper aboard, but is that fair in Pindar’s case? Juan K conveniently forgot to mention that the main reason Brian Thompson did not push the boat hard was that he was boatbuilding to keep serious structural problems at bay and to cope with other major problems for almost half the race. A boat with structural weaknesses is not safe to push hard.

The chat is that Pindar was heavy, hard to manage and slow downwind, that the swept back deck spreaders made it hard to depower the main and therefore to drive hard. So perhaps there other reasons why the boat was only at this theoretical 70%?

But let’s also note that Juan K has not tried very hard to find out about those practical problems and difficulties. He admits that he has not spoken to the man who nursed his boat round the world and the implication is that it is up to Thompson to apply to the court of King Juan.

Curiously, the phone doesn’t work the other way round. Now, what does that tell you about how keen a designer really is to learn about the empirical as opposed to the theoretical?

As it happens, I believe Brian Thompson has been quite busy trying to revive a deal to continue the sponsorship of the boat. The partnership between Bahrain and Pindar was a goodwill gesture, and the plan was that Bahrain would buy out Pindar’s sailing team afterwards.

The word is that this has fallen down, Pindar has staunched the bleeding by laying off the shore team, and that Thompson is busy trying to build bridges to the Middle East.

By the way, we have a very in-depth analysis of the breakages and failure rates in the Vendée Globe and Volvo Ocean Races in our current, April issue. If you have an interest in the subject of how far designers should push ocean racing design, don’t miss this 14-page investigation.