Serious keel and rig failures have plagued this race, but designers say their suggestions of a solution wasn’t taken up by skippers. "We could have sorted this years ago"

“We’ve already lost one keel in this race, and it’s quite possibly not the only one that’s going to go.”

So says one of the leading yacht designers for the Vendée Globe, a race that has been blighted with a disastrous series of keel and mast failures. Designers involved despair that the class – executive and skippers – have not listened to their suggestions of a solution and are vulnerable to repeated failures that risk lives, cost a fortune and are putting off sponsors.

While the Volvo Ocean Race has had no keel failures in the last three editions, the Vendée Globe has continued for well over a decade racking up calamitous breakages and perilous mid-ocean rescues.

Admittedly, the loss of Safran’s keel is a special case. It features the first ever titanium fin, and you can see in these photos from Thierry Martinez that it broke off about a half metre below the axle. This massively expensive item was specially made by the sponsor, a huge French defence contractor (not an illustrious showcase of their expertise, it must be said).

But the point is that Safran’s keel failure is the latest in a very long line of major failures, and few involved are confident that the problems have been properly tackled.

Why is this class not learning? Why is the Vendée Globe starting again with such little prospect of the boats being more reliable, or safer, than in the past?

To understand the scale of the problem, you need only look at the statistics. Since the 1996/7 race when Thierry Dubois, Tony Bullimore and Raphael Dinelli were rescued from their upturned boats in the Southern Ocean with hours to spare, there have been 17 keel failures in the class.

Rig losses, not always so serious, have been even worse. In the last five years, 20 boats have been dismasted.

The worst part of all this is that designers have been proposing a possible solution for years, but the class organisation and skippers who make the rule can’t agree among themselves and have simply not taken heed.

Last week I spoke to Xavier Guilbaud and Quentin Lucet from VPLP/Verdier, the design team responsible for five of the six newest designs in the fleet. They were clear that, as the class contemplates the possibility of a move to a one-design, one of the options they favour is for a one-design fin with different bulb weight options.

“That would allow teams to have different hull shape, ballast and sail area, and choose how to drive the boat,” says Guilbaud. He adds that it would also help reduce costs.

British designer Merfyn Owen of Owen Clarke Design Group (responsible for Mike Golding’s Gamesa, Dominique Wavre’s Mirabaud and Javier Sansó’s Acciona) is outspoken on the subject.
“That [a one-design keel] was my suggestion back in 2008. All the European designers and Farr, without exception, are in favour of it. Let someone else design it, no-one cares. We’ve all swallowed our egos and said it’s a good idea.

“Keel and rig failures are by far the main reasons why people are leaving the race, but IMOCA are crap, they are just not listening to us. Maybe we could have sorted this out some years ago, but they have not addressed these problems. Not one iota, right up to the present.”

The solution designers have proposed is a forged steel fin, possibly with composite leading or trailing edges, and some different options of bulb weights. “It would be a bit heavier, but there’s not a huge performance loss because you’re canting it. It would be a difference of less than 10 hours round the world,” says Owen.

But the skippers, who vote on rule changes, cannot agree among themselves. There is around a 35:65 split between those who want a complete one-design boat replacement and those who want to modify the existing rule, meaning that key decisions have only been nibbled at ineffectually.

The problems with masts are unlikely to go away either. Teams are known to replace lost rigs with similar configurations and designers’ suggestions of a radical rule overhaul have been kicked away.

“A one-design mast is too complicated because the boats are not the same weight and don’t have the same chainplates, but we could set a minimum tube weight, or tube and rigging weight,” says Xavier Guilbaud of VPLP/Verdier.

Merfyn Owen says: “The fundamental thing is that all the design offices involved, and Lombard, are all against a one-design boat, but we would all be happy to see one-design keels and a rig weight and VCG [vertical distance between center of gravity and keel] limitations.” This would effectively sweep away rotating wing rigs.

“At one stage before the last race the class was dropping a rig a month,” Owen says. “Can you imagine the associated costs with that and effect on sponsors’ confidence? It can cost €750,000 to repatriate a boat and set it back up again.

“This all needs to be addressed, and the changes will have to be driven.”

This has to be task Number 1 for Sir Keith Mills’s new Open Sports Management, which is to set about his global ambitions for this class. IMOCA is in limbo. And it’s not just about its commercial future. It’s about skippers’ own lives and the future and reputation of solo round the world racing.