This year’s Vendée Globe is a race for futuristic flying machines. Helen Fretter and Andi Robertson take a closer look
The world of single-handed offshore racing is a uniquely rarefied one. It’s an oft-quoted statistic that more people have been into space than sailed around the planet non-stop, but solo sailors who have successfully taken on the toughest race in the world belong to a particularly exclusive club.
“I think there’s only about 80 of us who have ever finished the Vendée Globe,” remarked Sam Davies, who will be entering her third Vendée this November. “That’s nothing compared to the number of people that have been on the International Space Station .”
But as the pace of development in the IMOCA class accelerates ferociously, this elite world is changing. The 2020 Vendée entry list includes few of the ‘old guard’ who featured heavily over the past decade, such as Vincent Riou and Jean-Pierre Dick.
Among the skippers with brand new latest generation designs are Charlie Dalin and Sébastien Simon, who will be starting from Les Sables d’Olonne for the first time. For Dalin it will only be his second solo IMOCA race.
They’ll be racing two of the most experienced sailors on the circuit: Alex Thomson, entering his fifth Vendée and hoping to finally take the top spot after 20 years of trying; and Jérémie Beyou, on his fourth attempt. Both are in new boats.
The fleet is more of a technology race than ever, while the Vendée Globe will forever be a battle of attrition and seamanship. So what do you need to succeed in the IMOCA class today?
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Road to Les Sables
A well-worn path to the Vendée Globe start line has been trodden by hundreds of hopeful French sailors. It begins with a Mini Transat campaign, where they learn to fix everything that can possibly break on tiny, overly complex boats, to manage a campaign on small change and hope, to read ocean weather systems, and to contend with the fear – or joy – that can only come when you are thousands of miles from land, in thousands of feet of water, alone, and often heart-wrenchingly young.
Subsisting on coffee, sleeping on generous friends’ floors (or worse, Ellen MacArthur famously lived in a container in a French boatyard), Mini Transat sailors have their commitment thoroughly tested. For many the next stage may be a Figaro, racing in a fleet so close that shines a spotlight on every tactical option missed, every manoeuvre fumbled. Here they learn how to manage the kind of sleep deprivation that leads to hallucinations, and how to abandon all ego. The budgets go up, the need to satisfy a sponsor increases.
The prize can be a ticket to the big league: an IMOCA 60 sponsorship deal, and a chance to try and emulate Alain Gautier, Michel Desjoyeaux or Armel Le Cléac’h, who all won at least one Figaro before winning the Vendée Globe.
However, to run a foiling IMOCA 60 campaign today requires a budget of €10-15million. Do these traditional pathways still produce the best skippers, or are marketing and boardroom negotiation skills more important?
“I do think that France has got just the best set up ever with the Mini Transat, the Figaro circuit, the Class 40s and then the Vendée Globe,” says Davies.
“It’s the ideal ground to go through, and I guess I did that because I went from Mini to Figaro, and truly the performances that I did in Figaro gave me my first opportunity with Roxy in the IMOCA.
“But then other people do it the opposite way and manage through being very clever and having good contacts. Getting a budget can get an IMOCA project going straight off without too much sailing experience. But then they’ll struggle because the performance in the IMOCA circuit is now pretty high.
“I would never have dared to have gone straight to an IMOCA having not been in a Mini or a Figaro! But I remember being really impressed with Jean-Pierre Dick who came through having found a budget, but never having sailed Mini or Figaro. He actually did some IMOCA sailing, realised he was being beaten by people who’d done a lot of Figaro racing and he just swallowed his pride and set off on a Figaro campaign because he knew that was the quickest way to improve his solo sailing.”
Solo sailors have always had to be their own engineers, but the complexity of a modern foiler now requires a huge team that not only includes sailmakers and electricians, but also specialists in aeronautics, hydraulics and composites. Charlie Dalin, skipper of the impressive Apivia campaign, is not only a graduate of the Mini and Figaro circuits but also a qualified naval architect renowned for his stringent attention to detail. Sébastien Simon is a composites engineer, Sam Davies a Cambridge engineering graduate.
“On Initiatives Coeur, I developed a new autopilot with Madintech last year, and I was the first one using that pilot. I’ve got a Mechanical Engineering degree and I love all that, the development and feedback, working with these companies who are right on the leading edge. It is really technical. I use my degree pretty much every day,” says Sam.
“Our boats are full of technology now. So, naturally, it leans towards the people who are a bit geeky and have a technical brain. But you can still be a young up-and-coming sailor who wants to buy an entry level boat that’s reliable, and you can go and have a great adventure.
“The company that sponsor you will just will get just as much out of it as the sponsor of the winning boat if they manage to live the adventure of the Vendée Globe with you. The great thing about the class is that these boats do exist, they’re much easier for a smaller team to work on, and they’re maybe more likely to finish.”
Many sailors and shore crews have begun their careers working as preparateurs, sometimes offering their skills for free. But as the boats have become more technical this area of work is increasingly formalised.
“It is more and more professional,” says Davies, “So maybe it’s a little bit harder for the young people to get a break. But if you are really motivated to do something, then you get there, if you’re brave enough to knock on the door and ask to come sailing or get some advice.
“That’s the great thing about Lorient, it’s a unique place where the whole world of offshore sailing is. There are the young keen Mini Sailors who are living on a shoestring, who’ve all clubbed together to rent an AirBnB for not very much money so they can train in Lorient, and just hang around bigger projects and be in the right place at the right time to jump on opportunities. That does still exist.”
The area is also home to world-famous training centres where solo skippers can be coached in the very specialist skills of offshore racing. They fall into two camps: the Pôle Finistère school in Port la Forêt, some 40 miles north; and a group that sails out of Lorient.
“It’s really important to train together, especially in the single-handed world, because there’s only so much you can learn when you’re on your own. It’s good to group together in organised, structured training. Like everything else, it’s professionalising. And if you don’t do that, then other people who do will get ahead of you and it will be hard to keep up,” explains Davies.
“Port la Forêt was one of the first French elite squads. It’s based around the Figaro class and the IMOCA, and is a selective squad so you can’t just pay to go training there. You have to put in an application that has to get accepted by a committee who decide whether you’re going to bring enough to the group. You have to have the right attitude, because it’s all about exchange and sharing and learning together. And if the group is too big, then nobody will share anything because they’re giving all of their secrets away to all of the opposition!”
The Port la Forêt 2020 skippers’ roster is a frankly intimidating list of the best offshore sailors in the world. Davies is a member of the squad. “It’s great, and I get a lot out of it. The sharing sail trim and boat performance aspect is managed really well by the coaches. Obviously they have to respect the privacy between us, because at the end of the day we’re all competitors.
“Then the Lorient set up is a bit more of a club kind of atmosphere, where anyone can come and pay their own subscription and then you sign up for the training sessions you want to do. So it’s more open to everybody.”
For sailors like Davies, Port la Forêt training is only part of their armoury. She also works individually with physical coaches and meteorologists, as well as fellow solo skipper Paul Meilhat.
“When you do a single-handed campaign, you’re a little bit alone, and for some of the pre-race decisions weather-wise, or strategy or sail choice, it’s nice to have another skipper to bounce ideas back and forward to help take the strain. A lot of the IMOCA skippers have another skipper who is their kind of their ‘performance coach’, they’re not necessarily a coach but they are another sailor to share the load,” she explains.
Despite the ever-increasing professionalism, the ever-bigger teams, and the single-minded competitiveness of the skippers, one thing that has not changed is the camaraderie among Vendée entrants.
“It still has that feeling; I guess it’s down to the seamanship involved, and the fact that what everybody is doing is just so hard. Even the people who are lucky enough to have a big team supporting them, at one point, they were a small team with not much money, or a Figaro sailor dreaming of one day doing the Vendée. I remember when I was younger it was amazing to be able to have just one tip from one of the top sailors. And so I try to do that.
“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do something absolutely amazing. And there’s a very mutual respect between everyone, because just to get to the start line is an incredible achievement in itself.”
Next generation IMOCAs
The 34-boat fleet that is expected to line up for this year’s round the world, non-stop, single-handed epic is one of the most intriguing, and untested that we have seen.
In the last Vendée Globe in 2016, the majority of new IMOCAs built for the race were from the VPLP-Verdier collaboration. But the design field has been blown wide open for the 2020 race with four different design studios in play, all with very different ideas. The resulting combinations of hull shapes and foil concepts span a much wider spectrum than recent editions of the race.
Factor in a critical lack of racing and training time because of the COVID-19 pandemic and November’s solo race promises to be the most intriguing since the landmark 2008/09 edition.
Back in 2016 the VPLP/Verdier near-monopoly accounted for six new boats, all launched in close succession in the summer of 2015 and the first in the class to all sport foils from the outset. By the finish they had taken three of the top four spots, including winner Armel Le Cléac’h’s Banque Populaire VIII, 2nd placed Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss and 4th placed Jean-Pierre Dick on St Michel Virbac.
VPLP and the group headed by ETNZ’s America’s Cup winning lead designer Guillaume Verdier have since gone their own ways and both have designed new boats for the 2020 Vendée Globe cycle.
The first of the 2020 generation boats to launch was Jeremie Beyou’s Charal by VPLP, considered by most to be the current benchmark boat and winner of the recent Vendée Arctic Race. VPLP followed that with Alex Thomson’s radical Hugo Boss and Japanese skipper’s Kojiro Shiraishi’s DMG Mori Global One (built from the Charal moulds).
Meanwhile Verdier’s designs are an extension of the initial research and modelling that went into the one-design Volvo Super 60s proposals, which sadly did not survive the transition of The Ocean Race to new ownership. They include Apivia – a collaboration between Verdier’s design team with project management by Francois Gabart’s MerConcept, and top Figarist Charlie Dalin as skipper.
Apivia won last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre and finished 2nd in the Arctic Race. Thomas Ruyant’s LinkedOut is another highly fancied Verdier package that finished just behind Dalin in 3rd in the Vendée Arctic. The VPLP-Verdier heritage is apparent across all five boats, but there are benefits to working separately also.
“It is good for us to be working on our own, when you have six projects from one design office you cannot focus so much on your design.
“I think now, with three new designs and two 2020 foil upgrades, you can be more focused on your concepts,” explains VPLP’s Quentin Lucet.
“It is exciting now for everyone because the range of philosophies is so wide. You can go from a fully boxy shape to much more rounded. Some don’t compromise on weight at all, others are focussed more on the skimming mode, some flying.”
The fundamental key to Charal’s design was that the hull would not generate any real righting moment: the foil does that. VPLP’s lower drag model proved very fast at the start of the TJV, with both Charal and Hugo Boss in full flying mode making 1-2 knots faster as they left the Channel. Both also have ‘skimming’ mode; touching down periodically.
“We have worked hard to reduce drag. Consider that 15 years ago we all added chines to add extra righting moment,” explains Lucet. The VPLP designers have now realised that instead it is more efficient to generate, for example, 1.5 tonnes per metre less in terms of righting moment to have significantly lower drag.
Hugo Boss, launched eight months later in April 2019, benefits from the extra design development time. Thomson’s boat is a more extreme option in terms of lowering drag, the beam waterline is narrower with a more rounded transom and slightly straighter, more parallel, waterlines and a fuller nose. Thomson’s team also placed an obsessive focus on weight reduction.
Juan K returns
The return of three times Volvo Ocean Race winner Juan Kouyoumdjian to the cutting edge of IMOCA design in this cycle was unsurprising. Juan K, as he is widely known, initially worked on optimising Vincent Riou’s 2009 design PRB, including new foils that were precursors to those on Sébastien Simon’s new Arkea-Paprec.
Arkea-Paprec was launched last year but broke a foil very early on, which rendered the team short of testing and training miles. Simon entered last month’s Vendée Arctic race, only to again break a foil soon after the start. He is now in a race to qualify for the Vendée Globe.
The second Kouyoumdjian boat is the very last to be launched before the Vendée Globe: Nico Troussel’s Corum L’Epargne went in the water only in May this year, so is also missing time on the water.
In essence there are two hull families, while the VPLP designs are slimmer and lower drag, Kouyoumdjian and Verdier’s IMOCAs are more powerful with more wetted surface, designed to be sailed heeled: Kouyoumdjian says the optimum is at 10-15°. Both Kouyoumdjian designs are relatively angular with the most pronounced chine aft, and noticeably flatter underwater.
Like Dalin’s Apivia, Troussel’s project has a dream team behind it including project management by double winner Michel Desjoyeaux. Corum L’Epargne has a more pronounced reverse sheer in the aft sections, and both boats also have the dreadnought-style bows that are common to several of the generation 2020 designs, not least Hugo Boss.
Troussel’s boat has a raised, flush deck line making for very high freeboard aft but offering good protection with lots of cockpit volume. It offers a different solution to Alex Thomson’s and Charlie Dalin’s enclosed, or near-enclosed ‘cockpits’.
The real newcomer to the IMOCA design field is Sam Manuard. With Armel Tripon’s L’Occitaine the successful Mini and Class 40 designer and sailor has pushed the hard scow bow concept as hard as the IMOCA rule will allow. The scow concept may have been successful in Class 40 transatlantics like the Transat Jaques Vabre, but on a foiling IMOCA in the big southern sea success for a chunky snub-bowed hull is far from a given.
L’Occitaine launched in February this year, only to be immediately locked down for two months. Tripon then suffered bow and rudder damage on an early qualifying sail. “We are definitely lacking sailing time right now. Armel is not yet in the state of mind to really push it yet,” Manuard commented as they prepared for the Vendée Arctic start in early July. Tripon was forced out of the Arctic race due to structural damage, after the skipper reported a collision with an underwater object.
“With the scow influence we are a bit alone,” observes Manuard. “The advantage we have with the scow is that when the boat is well lifted on the foils, [if] the bow pitches down the scow bow helps the hull bounce back and get back a normal trim without the bow plunging deeper into the wave.”
Manuard explains that the scow shape allows a more parallel sided hull form. This means that when the boat heels the effective waterline remains longer and so the flow to the foil is less disturbed, compared to a more classic bow shape, where the waterline shortens when the hull heels.
“When you heel you don’t alter the angle of incidence on to the foils so much. If you hit a gust, and the boat heels, you are transforming the change in energy more directly to boat speed. In flat water the scow has no advantage but as soon as you have wind with waves then you have the benefit. And, to me, there is no weak point in the light.”
L’Occitaine has curved foils and a very high exit point, which also means they can be retracted completely, and should create significantly reduced drag in light airs.
Foil evolution has been rapid and increasingly focused on reducing the amount of regulation required for both foil and sails to provide a much more stable, even ride for high, sustainable averages. Charal and Apivia, the fleet’s best optimised new boats, have just fitted their 2020 generation foils.
Beyou’s first generation foils were essentially too hard on the skipper. The boat would take off too bow up and would crash down back to ten knots, Beyou recalled. So their new 2020 ‘C’ style foil converges with Verdier’s thinking as well as Hugo Boss’s, being more forgiving while retaining high average speeds.
Marcus Hutchinson, project manager on Thomas Ruyant’s LinkedOut, explains, “The V2 2020 foils are less extreme. The first version effectively had two elbows. It was more about lifting the hull than generating righting moment, which the newer generation do.”
The new V2s now have single elbows but work deeper in the water with a longer shaft so that the boat will have less of a tendency to ventilate but will also make the boat more powerful.
Hutchinson adds, “The new profiles are more tolerant. Flying stability is going to be everything. But maybe the most significant changes are inside the boat where the ergonomics have been updated, the bunk, the seating arrangement, everything needs to be at arm’s length at most. You are on all fours to get around: it has to be like a padded cell.
“It is dangerous. The weak link is not the boat, it is how much punishment the skipper can take and how quickly they can recover.”
Kouyoumdjian also believes this race is more endurance than design race: “Every boat will have its moment. I don’t think one will outperform the other, it goes way beyond design. These boats are capable of very high speeds but they are not withstandable for the skipper.”
Finding those limits will involve stepping into the unknown for many of these untried designs, in a race where the attrition rate can be over 60%. Hutchinson warns: “None of us have done any sailing. It is pretty scary. I am really worried about this because right now, we should be finishing the New York Vendée and that would have been two transatlantic races by the end of June. Some of these boats have hardly sailed.
“To go straight into a Vendée Globe without the boats having done miles is pretty scary. It really is.”
First published in the September 2020 issue of Yachting World.