Are we asking too much of modern performance boats?

The recent and shocking footage of Telefonica being knocked down by two breaking waves was in stark contrast to the more usual images of the world’s best offshore racers taming overpowered beasts in boisterous conditions. To see the crew flailing around the cockpit as they hung from their harness lines with the boat laid flat, presented a very different image. Sometimes nature takes over.

From the footage it would appear that Telefonica was at the mercy of the breaking seas because she had been forced to slow down following serious structural problems in her bow. That in itself is a worry, but the bigger picture throughout the rest of the fleet is disturbing.

During eight days since the start, two thirds of the Volvo fleet has had to suspended racing to deal with major structural issues. Abu Dhabi’s bulkhead problem saw the team head back to Auckland. Team Sanya’s broken rudder led them to return to New Zealand as well where the boat will be shipped to Miami. Meanwhile Camper, having experienced several serious structural issues in her forward sections, is limping towards Chile for repairs. Now Telefonica will be stopping in Ushuaia to fix her bow which started to delaminate a week ago.

The result is that only two boats remain intact and in racing mode, a shocking statistic. Worse still is the fact that since the start in November, every boat has suffered a major structural failure. For third generation designs that are supposed to have learned the lessons of the past this is a worrying track record and has led many to ask, ‘why don’t they build them stronger?’

The answer is not simple, at least not unless the event organisers, sponsors and teams are prepared to accept some serious compromises.

Even if, ‘just building stronger’, was an option, this would invariably mean adding weight. Extra weight means extra loads and extra loads lead to the extra risk of structural problems. Heavier is not always better, sometimes it’s worse.

Making the boats bigger wouldn’t be the answer either, look at what happens when you ask a modern maxi racer to press hard in difficult conditions, their track record in events like the Sydney/Hobart and Fastnet isn’t that great either.

Some have suggested a one design would be the answer. But giving everyone the same boat will not in itself stop boats from breaking up. Contrary to popular belief, Teams are not pairing down to the absolute minimum in order to gain an edge on their competition, the rules on construction see to that and try to ensure that everyone is building to the same level. This time around the boats are more closely matched than before. Perhaps it is the rules themselves that need to be revised but knowing where to set limits is easier said than done, especially when the secondary effect can be to send the loads to the next weak link in the chain.

There are plenty of previous examples of broken structures and an abandoned boat to reinforce how difficult it is just to finish this race. Teams are well aware of the risks.

Some have suggested that One Designs could be the answer. Standardising the fleet could help to reduce the cost of campaigning, but that is a different issue. Putting all your faith in a single, common design would be difficult and risky too. Given that the entire current fleet has suffered at least one major problem, how would you define the new design? And if you got it wrong, you would get it wrong for everyone and risk failures across the whole fleet.

The problem seems to be that design and current technology has reached a plateau for this level of performance. To keep the kind of speeds we’ve become used to, structures can’t cope. Neither can the sailors with some of the experienced VOR/Whitbread veterans saying that the current generation of boats push crews beyond what is physically possible.

So if we haven’t reached the structural limits then design and engineering models don’t appear to be able to predict what’s happening when the boats are out there for real, that or materials are not performing as we expect. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but the bottom line is that we are not building structures that can handle the conditions.

The change of course hasn’t helped either.

This race has been dogged with more upwind sailing than in any previous race. Some of it has been particularly punishing. Could this have weakened structures that would otherwise have been good for the more traditional downwind blast around the world? Who knows, but this may well be another contributory factor.

The bottom line is surely that the race has rarely, if ever, experienced such a persistent series of major problems across the fleet. Something has to change. Either boats need to be heavier and hence slower, or the course needs to change. In the absence of a new wonder material that allows us to build more resilient structures, or maybe we’ve simply reached the current limit of monohulls?