Over the past thirty years, the boats sailed around the world by solo sailors have gone through several radical design changes, firstly for safety reasons, but also to adapt to more stringent class rules. However, the boats have continued to improve in terms of performance with each edition of the Vendée Globe. In the first non-stop solo round the world race in 1989-90, the winner Titouan Lamazou took 109 days and 8 hours, while François Gabart lowered the record to 78 days and two hours in 2013. In other words, there has been an improvement of 25% in spite of the race course being around 20% longer (because of the iceberg exclusion zones).
Of all the mechanical sports, ocean racing has probably changed the most during the last 27 years. The first 60-foot boats designed to sail around the world date back to the 1986 BOC Challenge, the second edition of the solo round the world race with stopovers. In the first Vendée Globe (1989-90), there were also no real design constraints, apart from the length of the hull.
The winner was Crédit Agricole III, a boat built of aluminum and which weighed in at 15 tonnes. but with each passing edition, designers have tried to find ways to increase power, while reducing weight. The domination of wide “sleds” with a lot of ballast and sail area in the second Vendee Globe in 1992 was thrown into question after the tragic 1996 race, when three boats capsized (Dinelli, Bullimore, Dubois) and one sailor was lost (Canadian Gerry Roufs).
While the yachts have become safer and more reasonable with IMOCA class rules, these 60 footers have continued to adopt many innovations. In 1996, Yves Parlier set sail around the world with the first wing mast. In 2000, Michel Desjoyeaux won with a canting keel, which allowed the boat to be stiffer.
Then, there were the asymmetrical daggerboards, more ballast tanks, huge progress in terms of weather forecasting with the use of Grib files, and on-board routing systems, sails which no longer lost their shape and hulls made of pre-preg carbon. The new IMOCA-class boats took the time down to under 100 days in 2001, completing the round the world voyage in 90 days in 2005, then in under 85 days in 2009 and in 78 days in 2013.
Yet class rules have become increasingly limiting with a maximum beam today of 19′ (5.85m), a maximum draft of 14′ 9” (4.5m), an air draft of 95′ (29m), a maximum of five appendages, minimum freeboard height and coach roof volume etc. There have been changes in leadership in the design teams: first Finot-Conq and Lombard, then Owen-Clarke, Farr, Kouyoumdjian, now VPLP-Verdier with straighter lines and rounder bows to increase fore and aft stability.
Every innovation, however, costs money. In 2013 the skippers debated moving to a one-design boat to keep costs down. The idea was rejected, but the two critical elements of the 60-foot IMOCA were standardized (mast and keel) and the volume of the ballast tanks limited. Inspired by the catamarans in the America’s Cup, the designers came up with the idea of adding L-shaped foils to lift up the hulls. Six new prototype boats have been fitted with these appendages and one older boat modified to include them.
But because the rules continue to limit the number of appendages to five (a keel, two rudders and two (dagger) boards), the designers had to think of a dual-function foil with a leeway-prevention role and a lifting function to stabilize the boat in addition to the canting keel.
The tip of this foil is the key element in resisting leeway, while the elbow helps raise the boat, and the shaft, which comes out of the hull, is just a way to support the tip. The rules forbid changing the angle of incidence of the foil, so after extensive testing, the skippers and designers chosen the best possible position.
Now, all of the foilers are fitted with the Mark 2 foil (except Hugo Boss following damage to the foil, which is using a Mark 3 design), but each team has made slight changes to try to out-pace their rivals. There is a significant gain in sail-carrying power thanks to the foils at between 70° and 120° from the real wind, offering an increase in speed of two knots.
This latest design breakthrough is now better tuned after a year of racing and testing, but there are still questions about the foils’ durability in the non-stop solo round the world race. The VPLP-Verdier partnership were responsible for the two first finishers last time and have 12 designs in this edition of the race, including the favorites foilers Banque Populaire VIII, Edmond de Rothschild, St Michel-Virbac, and Hugo Boss.
“I think the guys will need to start a bit cool if they want to get all the way around,” says naval architect Guillaume Verdier. “We have improved the foil profiles and the tip is working more. That is why the tip area is greater now, like on a Moth or a kitesurf. and we try to make sure that the full carbon foil would (ultimately) break at the exit of the hull rather than it breaking the hull. When the boats are capable of over 30 knots with nearly full foil, it is pushing the boundaries of what a man can do singlehanded. These are very stressful boats. When they are foiling the motion is violent and the noise is huge,” he points out.
So which type of boat will survive: Those that fly on the water with their foils or those that are simply lighter? “The chance of not finishing is so, so big. It is like the Le Mans 24-Hour Race. Verdier explains. “My worry is that sponsors might think of this like an off the shelf product, ready to go and bullet proof. But these are racing prototypes, the total opposite of an aeroplane for example on which each part has undergone 15 years of development before it flies.”
So who will come out on top after two and a half months of sailing in a huge range of weather conditions from Southern Ocean storms to equatorial calms? Will François Gabart’s 24-hour record run of 534 miles be under threat? We should know the answer around 20th January 2017 in Les Sables d’Olonne!