Twenty-nine boats and the same number of sailors—the Vendée Globe has its biggest field in 2016. The newest of the sailboats in this fleet have added hydrofoils for the once-in-four-years single-handed race around the world. Leaving Les Sables d'Olonne, France, they took off at a blistering pace last Sunday and are charting a course down the Atlantic toward the Southern Ocean.
What is the Vendée Globe? It's a non-stop 24,000-mile single-handed competition that starts in the Vendée region of France and circles the globe. Each of the 29 skippers has entered a 60-foot IMOCA Open class sailboat that complies with a "box" rule requiring the boat to be of set maximum dimensions, but allowing for loads creativity and customization in shape, sailplan, and equipment.
A typical day for these ocean racers will be spent plunging down waves, smashing into walls of water, being enveloped in icy cold spray, encountering equipment problems, wrestling with sails, experiencing communication blackouts or, at worst, losing a keel and having to wait for rescue from upturned boat. Typically, the sailors sleep for only 20 minutes at a stretch while the boat is steered by an autopilot. This Vendee Globe promo video will give you an idea of what the sailors are in for.
The skippers will be driving their boats and bodies to the extreme, making life as a crewman on a boat on Deadliest Catch look tame in comparison. That’s part of why in 2012 (the last race) only half of the 20 starters made it to the finish line. And it is why the race is known as ‘Everest of the Seas’. Here’s more on-the-water action in a video of entrant Edmond de Rothschild.
The development of the latest crop of boats with foil technology is cutting edge. While it’s now a common sight on America’s cup boats and catamarans, it’s new in the last couple years for ocean monohulls. The foils protrude from amidships on each side like a huge version of your great-grandfather's handlebar moustache. The massive, curved blades physically lift the boat out of the water to reduce wetted surface area and drag. The V shape is also designed to keep the boat flatter and prevent leeway (like conventional daggerboards).
One entrant, Alex Thomson’s futurist boat Hugo Boss, looks more like it's come from a Batman movie set than from a boatyard. Entirely black, aggressive, and ominous, it’s styled to strike fear into the five other competitors who have bet on foils to give them an extra advantage—or in any case, make as strong a statement as possible for its sponsor! Alex came third last time.
Capable of 30 knots, skippers in these new VPLP-Verdier designed rockets believe they can shave two days off the record and therefore complete the Vendée Globe in 76 days. The previous record of 78 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes, is held by Francois Gabart in Macif.
It will be fascinating to watch whether these teams, with huge budgets and new technology, survive the rigors of the Southern Ocean. The foils really deliver on a reach, but when going upwind they add drag. And, how will the non-foiling entrants perform? The bulk of the participants are racing on older boats, hoping to keep the moral of the fable of the tortoise and the hare intact. The US is represented in this group by Americans Rich Wilson (age 66!) and Conrad Colman. Will their stronger, proven, slower boats outlast the newer designs and win the day?
Conrad is the only skipper using only 100-percent natural energy for power, from solar panels on his sails and cabin top. And for the first time ever, he will also use his prop as a hydrogenerator. With huge banks of energy-consuming electronics and autopilot, this adds another dimension to his challenge, but he says, “I have validated all of the technology now, after two Trans-Atlantics.”
At time of writing it looks like the foiling bet is paying off—after a few days of racing, the new boats are predictably out in front with the likes of Armel Le Cleac’h (Banque Populaire VIII), Sebastien Josse (Edmond de Rothschild), and Jean Pierre Dick (StMichel-Virbac) among the leaders, heading south at a rapid pace.
The big question is will this new cutting-edge sailing technology work well for the whole trip?
To follow the race go to www.vendeeglobe.com, download the Apple or Android mobile app or join the 100,000 other players registered to complete the Vendee Globe virtual race.
If you want to enter the next Vendee Globe, you can buy your own IMOCA 60 on YachtWorld, and start training today.