Why Mike Golding is arguing that a one-design keel is the answer for accident-prone IMOCA 60s


Reading the news about Roland ‘Bilou’ Jourdain’s keel failure, my heart bleeds once again for a Vendée Globe skipper. This is the most ruthless race. It’s particularly sad for Bilou, because a crack in his carbon keel put him out of the race four years ago and he has battled so hard for his 2nd place this time.

After the third major keel problem in this race – four if you count the cracks that had opened up in Mike Golding’s keel that could have caused very serious problems had he not been dismasted first – people are naturally asking: has anything been learned since the last race? And what is the IMOCA class going to do to curb these repeated catastrophic failures?

The subject is on the agenda of the class as it seeks to amend the rules this winter. The first thing to point out is that every skipper and team does its utmost to get the safest keel. The class rules are made by the skippers themselves, and although they are ambitious careerists they aren’t suicidal.

To give you some idea of the lengths teams have gone to here are some of the changes made for this race:

According to the Vendée website says Le Cam’s boat had a carbon keel, but I’m told he changed to a steel fin last year, as did Bilou. Mike Golding and Dominique Wavre changed to carbon after corrosion problems with their fabricated steel keels, while Dee Caffari, who is sailing a sistership to Golding’s Ecover, changed to a stainless steel keel fin.

These are just samples but across the Vendée Globe other teams have had new keels as well in pursuit of better reliability.

The difficulty in arriving at a safe equilibrium between performance and reliability is that the causes of keel problems are complex and diverse. There have been failures in every keel material – carbon, fabricated steel and milled steel – and the failures have related to material flaws, structural engineering calculations and construction.

To compound matters, sailors have on occasions been frustrated by the reluctance of designers and engineers to stick their hands up and admit to mistakes.

One possible solution that is on the agenda but was ruled out last year is a belt-and-braces one-design keel. This is a case being argued strongly by Mike Golding, who says that a fixed weight fin and bulb package would also answer one of the most controversial questions the class faces: how to limit the growing power of the newest boats while still keeping them open to innovative development.

A standard or one-design keel would also provide a broader proving ground and, as a side benefit, would reduce costs – a one-off carbon keel costs about £120,000.

“We’ve got to address the problems and a one-design keel is the option I’m in favour of,” Golding says. “You limit bulb weight, so instantly you’ve capped beam because you’re trying to make the 10° [stability] rule. And you instantly limit rig height. It would be a simple rule that would sit easily along the other simple rules that govern the class.”

This and other safety questions are ones that IMOCA need to examine more rigorously for the next race. We have more on this subject, and on the other safety questions that the class is urgently discussing, in our March issue, on sale on 12 February.