Alex Thomson's Hugo Boss is one of a group of boats equipped with foils that skippers say give a 10-12 per cent speed gain. One of these will win, Thomson predicts – and he intends it to be him
Over its history, the Vendee Globe solo round the world race has seen many significant technical innovations – canting keels and wingmasts to name but two. But the introduction of foils to the latest boats to generate lift and reduce displacement could be one of the largest performance gains ever seen.
And today British skipper Alex Thomson, whose IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss sports one of the most extreme sets of foils, predicted that a early breakaway from the start this weekend could put foilers so far in the lead they may never be caught.
There is a superb line up of 29 entries in this race, from the latest designs in the hands of top skippers to those sailed by an equally interesting group of so-called adventurers.
But it is the foils everyone is talking about.
“This is the conversation that everybody has been having: is it about foils or not foils? Will they finish? Will they not finish?” says Thomson.
“So the first thing is: if any of you came for a sail on my boat you wouldn’t ask the question again – when you are reaching or going downwind, the difference is so big.”
Thomson’s team, and others, say that foils increase boat speed by 2-3 knots at times. The gain in performance is said to far exceed the single figure improvements that once were added by changes to mast, sails or keels.
The new boats with foils, all VPLP/Verdier designs, are Banque Populaire VIII (skipper Armel Le Cléac’h), Safran (Morgan Lagravière), Groupe Edmonde de Rothschild (Sébastien Josse), Hugo Boss (Alex Thomson), and No Way Back (Peter Heerema). The older boats equipped with foils are Groupe Quéguiner (Yann Elies) and Maître Coq (Jérémie Beyou).
Most of the skippers using foils have raced and trained together in France. But Thomson’s Hugo Boss, the last to launch, is still something of mystery. He has only competed with his rivals in the solo New York to Vendée race this summer, and his foils are markedly different from the rest. He thinks (and they may well fear) this could give him an edge.
“Our foils are very different from everyone else’s in this race,” he explains. “It is important that you understand that. The shaft of our foil is doing the work. With all the other foils, the tip is doing the work.
“So I do expect to see some differences in the performance of the foils and at times I expect that to be significant. It will be interesting to see where our strengths and weaknesses lie.”
But the other part of everyone’s question about foils is how robust will they be, how reliable round the world? Will they last the course?
Thomson is adamant the question is mis-directed. The foils are strong enough; the question mark hangs over the whole of the prototype boats to which they are fitted.
“Are they reliable? The honest answer is: it’s just a piece of carbon sticking out the side of the boat. It used to stick down, then a bit more out the side, now it’s [right out]. These foils are not very different [from the last daggerboards].
“The problem is all the foils are on new boats, apart from one. And new boats are not very reliable. They are complete prototypes – completely custom pieces of kit with 20,000 individual, fragile components. And that is why there will be an unreliable part of it.”
But Thomson has no doubts as to their effectiveness, or the speed of the foil-borne boats, particularly with a forecast for a downwind start. This would see them scorch off at turbo speeds and there is a real possibility that the foil boats will take a lead and the others behind may never catch up.
“If we have this forecast it is hard to see how a non-foiler can stay with a foiler, and generally in this race the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” declares Thomson.
“If we had the opposite scenario at the start and we had to go upwind for a week then, for sure, the foilers would be behind some of the older boats like PRB. But still I believe the difference is big enough in any Vendée Globe that a boat with foils will win.”
Bearing in mind the historical attrition rate of this race – between 30 and 50 per cent of entrants are forced to retire – there is a very slim chance that no foil-equipped boat will finish. But that is highly unlikely. More likely is that one of the group that streaks away from Les Sables d’Olonne on Sunday will go on to set a new record, pushing the solo round the world time below 78 days.
Thomson hopes, of course, that it will be him. He is on his fourth Vendée Globe. Twice he been swept off the course by catastrophe, but many forget that he stood on the podium in the last race after coming 3rd in an older generation boat.
This time he is back with the confidence of a finisher – and a special weapon up his sleeve.