Pip Hare on how she’s turbocharged her IMOCA 60 Medallia ahead of next year’s Vendée Globe, the ultimate race for any singlehanded offshore sailor
Ahead of me, the bow of Medallia is pointing at the sky. This is not poetic license; I am actually looking upwards at my bowsprit as it rises up, 50ft in front of me and some 3m higher than I am. In that split second, I can barely compute what is happening.
My brain just starts to grasp the situation when Medallia levels out and shoots forwards. I watch the speed log flick from 26 knots to 27, 28, 29 knots. The acceleration is actually insane. The foils are humming. Occasionally the windward foil grazes the waves and sprays me with a wall of water. Medallia, newly refitted and modified, is just one hour into our first commissioning sail and I have no doubts that we have indeed turbocharged our IMOCA 60.
The IMOCA class is in the midst of a boom. There are now over 50 international teams running these 60ft ocean racing beasts. The Vendée Globe has expanded its entry list to 40 candidates for the next edition in 2024 while The Ocean Race has been reborn as a crewed IMOCA event, with teams smashing the 24-hour monohull record.
Sponsors are flocking to the class and team budgets have never been higher. There are 14 new boats in build and the first two-boat campaign (Thomas Ruyant and Sam Goodchild’s For People and For Planet) was launched earlier this year. It’s an exciting time to be part of this class, but it’s tough for a small team like mine, based outside France, to stay competitive.
When I finished my first Vendée Globe in 2021, I had already started planning for the second race and I knew I wanted a competitive entry. I had the support of Leslie Stretch, CEO of my title sponsor Medallia, but with neither the time nor the funds for a new boat (around €6 million and two years to design and build), I had to look at existing boats.
There were no 2020 generation boats for sale, so we settled on the best previous generation boat on offer – the VPLP/Verdier-designed Banque Populaire VIII, in which Armel Le Cl’éac’h won the 2016 Vendée Globe and set the course record. One of the first to be designed and built with foils, it was strong, well proven and successful. But when we bought it in 2021, I had now idea how the class would grow and how much it would advance – or how much we’d have to do to Medallia to keep pace.
A meeting of minds
Because of changes to the qualification rules for the next Vendée, there is precious little time in the four-year cycle when the boats can be out of action. The only window we had to refit Medallia was early 2023, before the all-important qualification races started. Joff Brown, our technical director, and I started with a tour of the pontoons at the 2021 Transat Jacques Vabre start, taking photos and making notes of all the trends, features and ideas we could see on other boats.
I knew I wanted big foils. At the other end of the scale, two skippers – Jean Le Cam and Eric Bellion – are building new yachts with daggerboards (both David Raison designs). The ultra experienced ‘King Jean’ Le Cam believes the all-round performance of a daggerboard boat, combined with the reduced risk of performance limiting damage to foils, could win the race. The speed differential between a boat with big foils and one with none can be huge – over 15 knots at the biggest extremes – but foils are only activated in the right conditions, namely reaching.
When boats are not reaching, speeds between foilers and daggerboard boats can be similar, particularly in lighter airs and when dead downwind or upwind. But, despite having seen non-foilers do well on shorter qualification courses, my opinion is still that the benefit of big, powerful foils at key moments in the race will outweigh the all-round performance of a more traditional design.
The foil design for this latest generation of boats has become a lot more homogeneous compared to the early 2020 designs, and most foils sit somewhere on a continuum between a C shape, which has a smooth, steady curve, and an L shape, which has more of a hard elbow. In general, the C shape is thought to be faster and to give a more consistent flight in big breeze downwind conditions (as seen with Malizia in The Ocean Race) while an L shape is better for reaching and upwind so provides more all-round performance.
The IMOCA class rule now caps the maximum foil extension to 5.75m from the centreline, so the other significant variation is the angle and height at which the foil leaves the hull. In general terms, a flatter foil, which leaves the hull at a shallow angle, will provide less side force against leeway but will be better in downwind conditions, where it will be able to lift the bow out of the water at lower speeds. It’s also worth remembering that these big foils do not need to be used at full extension; the power and lifting ability can be regulated by trimming how far out they go.
For Medallia I didn’t want to go too extreme; I don’t want or need to be the fastest on the track, I need to be capable of sustained high performance yet still be able to back off and sail in ‘safe mode’ when the need arises. The Vendée Globe is about fast averages, reliability and problem solving, and the fastest boat on paper will not necessarily be the winner. I wanted a yacht that would have the best potential for me, a 50-year-old woman, racing in my own style.
With ideas starting to form, the next step was to select a designer to work with. To ensure easy access to our boat’s original drawings, we spoke to the two design houses that had conceived the boat: VPLP and Verdier. Both designers impressed on me the importance of modifying the shape of our bow, and that new foils alone would not work.
Through the evolution of two design cycles since my boat was launched, bow shapes have changed to produce increased performance downwind in big waves. With average speeds of over 20 knots, the IMOCA fleet regularly travel faster than the waves and the boats are now designed with a view to jumping over the wave ahead rather than ploughing through it.
This is achieved by increasing the overall volume in the bow, while lifting the entry so the stem sits clear above the waterline. Both design houses emphasised that the most effective bow modifications for Medallia’s existing bow shape would involve remodelling the first 5-7m of the underside, to start lifting up to the bow from just aft of where the new foils would sit. But even a modest change in shape would have a significant effect.
Eventually my choice of designer was a no-brainer. Guillaume Verdier is a genius, undoubtedly one of the greatest yacht designers of our time; I was more than a little starstruck. However, what sold it for me was that he really listened to me. He was excited by the prospect of keeping an older boat in the game rather than building a new one. He steered me towards an existing foil design and I agreed that this would be the cost effective and expedient solution for us.
Fairly quickly we needed to select contractors: Jason Carrington in the UK for the structural work and CDK in Brittany for the foils, benefitting from their prior experience building the boat’s set of foils. It slotted together perfectly. We also needed to consider whether collaborating with another team would work for us. After a chance encounter with the Holcim-PRB team, on the cross-Channel ferry of all places, a conversation grew. They were generous with their knowledge and we decided to collaborate, sharing foil design. Then we’d make the biggest bow modification we could afford with as much budget as we could muster.
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Verdier’s design team came to inspect the boat and talk us through each one of the many decisions we had to make. At this point I stepped back from the process as over 2022 I took part in four races, three of which were solo. My objective was to finish the year with a top 15 position in the Route du Rhum, competing against the skippers with four years’ experience in boats with big foils. It went well, and though I just missed out on a top 10, I ended up 12th, with an overall incredible ranking of 8th in the IMOCA Globe 2022 series.
After the Route du Rhum we sailed back from Guadeloupe as fast as possible, picking our way through some big weather systems. As soon as we arrived back in Gosport, the boat was stripped of her mast and keel, then taken to Carrington Boats in Hythe, near Southampton, after Christmas where it was pushed into the shed for six months of work.
The first cut
It was a shock when the first angle grinder sliced through the hull. Within a matter of days, the bow had been cut off and a 15m2 section of deck over the existing foil cases had been removed. Seeing the pictures, I remember feeling sick. It was the first and only time I doubted my decision. Ripping out the old structure was loud, messy, and quick. Our new foils are further forward and a completely different shape so we needed to rip out the old foil cases, make good the holes in the hull, then drop in the new structure, along with an extra bulkhead just in front.
Besides adding the new bulkhead we had to reposition watertight hatches, add structure supporting the new foil cases, a grid of beams in the aft of the boat to protect against slamming, shrink the internal water ballast tanks and move our foredeck hatch forward and off centre.
While all this was going on, our own team still needed to carry out usual winter refit work, including servicing every element of the boat after a long year on the water, and a planned upgrade to our onboard electronics.
Our new foils look refined and beautiful, a true work of art in form and in function. They’re 5.4m long with a chord of 60cm, and beside them our old 3.4m foils look like tiny penguin wings. Nevertheless, they somehow look too fragile to lift nine tonnes of boat clear out of the water, and the fine tips seem ridiculously small – but they can, and they do.
On a beautiful sunny morning in June, we wheeled the new hull of Medallia out of the shed. Over six months since the refit started and from the outside Medallia did not look that different, apart from the bow modification – the raw potential was all hidden inside.
We dropped into the water and motored to Gosport. Two days later the keel went on and the foils were ready to fit. Medallia sat on the high cradle, 5m in the air, with a crane suspending the foils alongside. We made clamps to grip the foils in place, then a handy billy purchase system to allow fine adjustment of the tip and shaft height to precisely line up with the bearing.
Moment of truth
Fitting the foils was the moment of truth. The sight of the first foil at full extension brought tears to my eyes. It was magnificent. The new Medallia was revealing itself, just like a 2024 generation boat, as if the foils were always meant to be there, and exactly how we had planned it should be. I was relieved, intimidated, excited and proud all at the same time.
The skill involved in the design, build and fit of these foils with such exact precision is phenomenal. The foil bearings must fit to the millimetre – and the casings, pivots, positions and exit points for foil lines must be exactly right. The engineering is fine and precise, yet the boat must withstand Southern Ocean conditions. The IMOCAs may be much heavier than the foilers of Sail GP or the America’s Cup, but the design and build process is every bit as ingenious and rigorous.
With both foils in, Medallia is too wide to launch with a travel lift. Instead, it had to be picked up from points on deck – forestay and backstay fittings – then craned out over pontoons and bridgeheads to a berth. Once the boat was in the water, the mast was stepped and we completed the final stages of measurement with a 90° pull-down test, where the boat is tipped over by attaching a strop to the keel, then lifted until the mast is parallel to the water. The measurer notes the righting moment exerted on the mast tip at that angle and measures how far above the water the centreline of the hull sits.
Hitting 30 knots by accident
“We’re going to take it easy. This is just a chance to make sure everything works,” I said before our first sail trial. We needed to make Medallia fit to sail, to recommission, to ensure the boat was functional and safe. Nothing more. But from the moment we left the dock, I could feel a boat that wanted to go. The relief to be back on the water was huge.
We sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour, and gently wound the boat up, checking mast alignment, rig tensions, looking for leaks, listening for sounds out of the ordinary. We unfurled the sails, put reefs in and shook them out, methodically going through our commissioning checklist, hypervigilant for anything that looked not quite right. We had agreed not to use our more powerful offwind sails but to stick with mainsail and jib for the test sail.
The water was flat and, as we sailed to the east, the boat slipped easily through the water. “Let’s try a foil,” I said.
Gingerly, we dropped the leeward foil down to 100% extension. Joff had his head inside the case to watch the blade slide through the bearing. Yes, he called up, everything looked OK.
As we emerged from the wind shadow of the Isle of Wight the wind started to build, a couple of knots from 15 to 18 knots true. Suddenly, everything changed. The foils started howling, then screaming. There was a gust of wind and the bow reared up, high into the air. I was braced to broach, to fall backwards or fall bow first downwards, but instead we levelled off and Medallia took off at a sprint.
The speed felt incredible: easy and natural. I’d got used to deluges of water barrelling down over the deck and knocking me off my feet at these speeds in our previous configuration, but instead there was an occasional shower of spray as the windward foil touched the water, and it was quite bearable with the cockpit coachroof pushed forward and the back half of the cockpit open to the elements.
The power of Medallia was incredible, I tried to slow down by easing the mainsheet and I failed. I tried again, but there was still no let-up in speed. Joff was shouting at me from down below that we’d agreed to keep it conservative. It was time to put out the fire. I turned the bow downwind, we sank down to sea level and relative calm was restored.
We’d seen a tiny fraction of what this boat is capable of and it’s phenomenal. The new IMOCAs have been logging top speeds of 40 knots, the 24-hour monohull record has been smashed during the Ocean Race to an epic 641 miles – an average of 26.7 knots. I expect my revamped eight-year-old boat to achieve top speeds in the high 30s.
Yet even from that first sail it’s obvious these bow-in-the-air performances are not sustainable when sailing solo, or indeed the key to a good Vendée performance. My job over the next year is to learn how to control this beast, to moderate the power, to tame the foils, to adapt to a sailing style that suits me at the right level of risk. This type of solo ocean racing is not a demonstration of machismo. We have incredible power at our fingertips and we need to use it wisely.
Latest generation IMOCA 60 foil designs
Malizia-Seaexplorer changed to C-foils during The Ocean Race, which proved fast in the Southern Ocean, big breeze reaching and downwind conditions, where they were more able to keep the bow clear of the water when catching up waves.
The 11th Hour Racing’s L-foils have a tighter angle at the elbow which results in a greater depth and shorter span – this will help keep the bow higher, but is less effective at lateral resistance. Medallia’s have a slightly shallower angle that gives a more all round performance.
Our foils are made end-on, now a fairly common practice that addresses the problem of separation of layers when the foils reverse load. Reverse load happens when the foils present to the water at an angle or in a way that creates an upwards force on the elbow and bends the foils in the opposite way. This scenario pulls the foil apart at the elbow, forcing horizontal layers of laminate apart. To guard against the problem, rather than building the foils from the bottom up, they’re built from front to back. Thin strips the length of the foil, known as boomerangs, are laid up individually then glued together to form a base structure from which the foil shape is milled. This is then wrapped with final layers of carbon.
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