The refit, revalued

68% of the fleet in the current edition of the Vendée Globe is made up of boats from generations preceding the latest; boats which have all undergone some kind of remodelling or refit to boost performance levels. Refit projects are on the rise and have seen the development of specialist technology involving some of the nautical sector's most esteemed professionals. The IMOCA Class rules allow these modernised yachts to achieve excellent performance levels in round the world regattas, driving the cost of a project down when compared with a new build.

Articles NOV. 8, 2012 01:00

It's not only the current economic climate that's behind this. The IMOCA Class has always seen a trend for maximising the potential of older generation yachts, refitting and remodelling to lighten them up as well as adding the latest technological advances to boost performance. It's one of the key contributing factors to the fact that IMOCA is currently the class with the largest number of active ocean-going racing yachts; the boats' long lives mean that they can continue to race sometimes for over ten years, although it must also be said that for the oldest boats the options at actually winning are somewhat slim.

A decade ago an older generation boat would not have been considered as competitive in a round the world regatta. However, in 2004 Vincent Riou's PRB managed to blow that theory out of the water by winning the Vendée Globe having been up against latest generation models. Riou's yacht had also been the winner of the solo round the world challenge in 2000 with Michel Desjoyeaux at the helm and so became the first yacht in history to win a round the world regatta twice, a record which still stands today. This achievement spurred a rethink about the potential of the 'refit' when putting together a competitive project. In the most recent edition of the Barcelona World Race almost all of the boats, except the brand new Virbac-Paprec 3 and Foncia, had undergone some kind of remodelling or reconstruction, designed specifically with the regatta in mind. Some of these, namely Estrella Damm, Renault Z.E., Mirabaud, GAES Centros Auditivos and Hugo Boss, had made some significant changes to certain parts of the boat, such as rigging, deck layout, cockpit design or the steering and rudders. Most of the other boats had undergone a weight-reduction program and all of them had been subjected to an exhaustive service which saw more than one or two changes to steering mechanisms and on-board electronics. A rising trend The latest changes to the Class rules, which limit the power of new boats, setting a maximum mast height of 29 metres and setting an obligatory righting-moment of 32 tonnes per metre have also led to a surge in refit projects.Adapting a boat from a older generation (bearing in mind that the IMOCA Open 60 “generations” are renewed every four years) has been the chosen option for 13 of the 19 registered entries competing in the present Vendée Globe; that means 68% of the current fleet. Of those 13, 11 are 2006 or 2007 models which may be considered as 'penultimate generation' boats, the generation preceding the 'new-builds'. These new boats were built just ahead of or just after the Barcelona World Race 2010/2011 and there were six of them at Les Sables D'Olonne. It's also worth noting that in the previous Vendée Globe (2008) 60% of the 30 boats signed up for the regatta were new-builds, 16.6% were from the previous generation and 23.3% were over 8 years old. The jump from 40% to 68% of boats from previous generations taking part in the race over the past four years can be seen this time. The global economic downturn has surely had impact on this growing trend which has also undoubtedly been boosted further by the change in the Class rules. Weight, a constant battle The 13 remodelled entries in this Vendée Globe have all opted, to greater or lesser extents, depending on budgets and skipper preference, for refits which include changes to the hull and rigging. Pascal Conq, the designer of Riou and Desjoyeaux's legendary PRB recently confirmed as such: “the hulls are increasingly similar, with differences being more clearly marked out now in terms of ergonomics, appendages and ballast tank positioning”. The increasing similarity of the hulls has also meant that the recent generation yachts have been able to share moulds, which has also contributed to driving build and refit costs down. It means avoiding any changes to the hull waterline, the most expensive and least exercised option when refitting a boat. The most common changes, beyond modernising the electronic and on-board power systems, are a reduction in the overall weight and adapting the steering to the preference of the skipper. Normally a refit of this kind is focussed mainly on lightening up the mast and rigging, which means lightening the bulb ballast and reducing the volume of the ballast tanks. That means a stay at the shipyard for the boat which is made the most of by remodelling the deck and cockpit to the taste of the skipper, whilst constantly bearing in mind the need to lighten up. “Every refit is a slimming program”, says Javier Villallonga, director of the FNOB Sailing Team and head of the Ocean Sailing Base at Barcelona. In these cases the work is done under the close supervision and inspection of the boat designer, especially as important structural elements of the boat may be involved. The numbers are the main argument for opting for a refit of an older yacht as opposed to choosing a new build. That all depends, of course, on the boat in question and its track record in competition. A new mast with all the rigging might cost between 330 and 430,000 euros; the boom could add another 80,000 € to the bill, whilst a full new sail program might set a project back some 250,000 €. When it comes to appendages, a new keel costs around 160,000 €, including a full structural survey of the boat. A pair of daggerboards might come in at between 70 and 100 thousand euros. Altogether, a refit of this type, which is considered now as common, can reach a total budget of between 880,000 and 950,000 €. Factoring in the cost of buying or hiring the boat and the entire operation would be likely to cost less than half the price of a new build, considering that these currently easily come in at over three and a half million euros. In addition to these changes, new boat-building technologies also mean that it is possible to remodel the lines of the hull, which can cost between 500,000 € and 700,000 €, depending on the extent of the work to be done. At this considerable cost it's worth thinking very carefully beforehand. With new builds out there, it's aways difficult to reach performance levels which justify the investment, although there will be projects coming through after the Vendée Globe 2012/2013 that have taken that route. Santi Serrat

SynerCiel, a Barcelona refit for Jean Le CamLaunch of SynerCiel at the FNOB Ocean Sailing Base. © Mireia Perelló / FNOB

SynerCiel, a Barcelona refit for Jean Le Cam

Le bateau SynerCiel avec lequel Jean Le Cam participe au Vendée Globe cette année a été rénové sur la Base de Voile Océanique de Barcelone. Ce chantier est un bon exemple de mise à profit d'un bateau « ancien » pour affronter les puissantes machines dernière génération.

SynerCiel est l'ancien Gitana Eighty sur lequel a navigué Loïck Peyron sur le Vendée Globe 2008/09 jusqu'à son abandon dans le Grand Sud, après avoir démâté. Après plusieurs mises en chantier dans la Base de la FNOB de Barcelone, le bateau est ensuite devenu le Renault Z.E., avec lequel Pachi Rivero et Toño Piris se sont placés troisièmes de la Barcelona World Race 2010/11. Jean Le Cam l'a alors loué à la FNOB avec un nouveau contrat incluant un nouveau refit et un programme de participation au Vendée Globe 2012/13 et à la Barcelona World Race 2014/15. 

Les travaux sur la Base de la FNOB ont principalement consisté à remettre le bateau en condition pour naviguer. Ceci a conduit à démonter, réviser et remonter le mât et tout son gréement, ainsi que le démontage et la révision de tous les éléments d’accastillage, tels que les winchs, les transmissions, les poulies et renvois. Concernant l'électricité et l'électronique, tout a été démonté et vérifié, les batteries chargées et le système de communication révisé. Une nouvelle casquette a été installée dans le cockpit renforcé. Dernière opération la coque a été mise aux couleurs du sponsor ; la quille et les appendices ont été peints en orange, comme l'exige cette course. 

Concernant la structure : les ballasts de l'ancien Renault Z.E. ont été modifiés, le cockpit réaménagé, les petites avaries subies lors de la Barcelona World Race réparées et l’ensemble des systèmes du bord vérifiés. Les travaux ont bénéficié de la collaboration d'Enrique Cameselle, grand connaisseur du bateau et technicien en gréement, accastillage hydraulique et voiles, Nacho Pella et Ferran Seguer, experts en composites, et Edgar Martinez, expert en peinture. Jordi Barinaga et Alberto de Torres se sont chargés de la mise à niveau de l'électricité et de l'électronique. Javier Villlonga, directeur de la Sailing Team de la FNOB, a coordonné les travaux: "Nous avons mis le bateau en mode 'navigation' en un mois afin qu'il puisse être transporté par mer jusqu'à Lorient, sur la base d'Absolute Dreamer. Le boat captain et un technicien de l’équipe française nous ont aidé durant les trois derniers jours avant la mise à l'eau. Les français ont d'ailleurs été très surpris et contents de notre travail car tout a fonctionné dès le premier jour de navigation à Barcelone." Chez Absolute Dreamer, à Lorient, SynerCiel a été soumis à un chantier plus approfondi, qui s'est terminé cet été.