Maritime traffic, safety and penalties

The protest filed by Alex Thomson in reference to the infringement of the TSS at Cape Finisterre, as well as the sanctions given by the Jury, handing out penalties to seven Vendée Globe skippers, have stirred up controversy and have also thrown up issues surrounding certain aspects of safety in ocean racing

Articles DEC 5, 2012 01:00

On November 21st as instructed by the International Jury of the Vendée Globe, the Race Management informed the skippers on Synerciel, Mirabaud, Acciona 100% EcoPowered, Initiatives-Cœur and Energa that they had all been issued two-hour penalties. Gamesa was also issued a penalty of 30 minutes, whilst Virbac-Paprec was given a 20-minute penalty.

The decision followed a protest filed by Alex Thomson against the boats for an infringement of article 5.3 of the Sailing Instructions for the regatta which stipulates that “a boat shall comply with rule 10, Traffic Separation Schemes of IRPCAS” (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea). The protest made by the Hugo Boss skipper referred to the fact that the boats had violated the rule by not passing through the TSS zone at Finisterre in the correct manner.

TSSs or Traffic Separation Schemes are traffic-management route systems with virtual lanes implemented by coastal authorities to indicate the general direction of shipping in an area, in order to reduce the possibility of a collision. TSSs are implemented in areas with particularly dense shipping traffic. Spain has numerous TSSs including Cape Finisterre, Tarifa, Cabo de Gata, the Eastern and Western Canaries. The zone with the most dense maritime traffic is Tarifa in the South of Spain, followed by Finisterre in Galicia and Cabo de Gata in Almería.

Formas correctas e incorrectas de atravesar un DST

Rule 10 of the IRPCAS or ColRegs as they are also known in the UK (RIPA in Spanish and RIPAM in French) lays out the procedure to be followed in TSS lanes, stipulating that boats must proceed in the appropriate traffic late in the direction of flow for that lane, join or leave a traffic lane at the termination of the lane, but when joining or leaving from either side shall do so at as small an angle to the general direction of traffic flow as practicable and must also avoid crossing traffic lanes, although if obliged to do so - and this is the case for the seven sanctioned entries- they should cross as practicable at right angles to the general direction of traffic flow (see figure 1).

The Finisterre TSS (see figure 2) lies exactly along the routing of most of the boats taking part in many offshore regattas setting off from France's Atlantic coast, such as the Vendée Globe and the Mini-Transat. By tracking the route of the fleet in this edition of the Vendée Globe it is easy to see that the boats involved in the protest clearly infringed rule 10 of the ColRegs; they crossed the TSS lanes at an inappropriate angle.

Penalties not without controversy

The imposed penalty means that the skippers will have to stop their boats completely for the specified period of time. The Race Management allows a period within which the penalty must be undertaken, according to weather conditions and geographical position, so as not to compromise the safety of the skipper or boat. The sanctioned entries all fulfilled their penalties without any drastic impact on their overall classification in the race, having chosen periods of particularly light winds in which to do so.

There have been mixed reactions. The Jury's resolution was obeyed without question by all of the boats and only Jean Le Cam, with his trademark ironic humour invited the organisers to “reflect” on the penalties and called out for ocean racing in a “free space”. He did so in a video which topped 50,000 views at Dailymotion (see video). However, where the matter really stirred up some clearly opposing opinions and particularly fervent debate was on the social networking sites. Many fans have criticised Alex Thomson in what they describe as an opportunist and underhand move, whilst others have staunchly defended the Briton for his protest which related to an issue directly concerning safety. Many have also questioned whether the issue might set a precedent for future ocean-going regattas. Many people also highlighted the fact that half of the Mini-Transat fleet crossed the TSS at Finisterre incorrectly, as did a good number of the Barcelona World Race entries at the TSS at Gibraltar. On the other hand, there are also many of the opinion that following this trend of strict adherence to regulations would make solo offshore and ocean racing impossible and impracticable with skippers immediately infringing rule 5 of the ColRegs even by sleeping, which states: “...every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision”.

In first place is the issue of fair-play. As Bernard Bonneau. President of the Vendée Globe Jury points out: “...filing a protest is not a lack of fair-play, quite the opposite”. The regulations are made to be respected for one fundamental reason: they have been created to create a code of conduct especially in the case of those relating to safety, which act to benefit sailors. In any sport it's the rules which define the essence of the competition and whilst sailing is a sport where fair-play usually underpins competition, an occasional lapse is inevitable. That's where protests come in to remind everyone of its importance.

When it comes to maritime traffic regulations such as those regulating the zone of intense traffic at Finisterre which the seven skippers infringed, safety is paramount. It's also worth noting that thePrestige oil disaster led to the Spanish authorities introducing a third lane to the TSS at Finisterre and both in this zone and in the TSS zone at Gibraltar all boats are obliged to identify themselves.

Technology: a necessary route

However, what's clearly necessary is to reach a logical situation which reflects the sailing reality, rather than falling into the trap of transforming the dangers into more restrictions, especially when facts reflect that what is needed are more detection devices and better use of the existing ones and not a radical regulation overhaul for sailing. With that in mind the use of AIS and radar systems must be encouraged among all types of sailor; fishing vessels are particularly known for turning off their SARTs (Search and Rescue Transponders) when they're fishing, precisely so that they can't be located.

Advances in detection system technology, such as those made by Safran in the 2008 Vendée Globe are far more true to the spirit of the IMOCA Class, where technological innovation goes hand in hand with safety. It's also more a more realist approach, with the increasing threat of UFOs (Unidentified Floating Objects) and cetaceans, which are the cause of numerous retirements and fair few breakages to daggerboards and rudder blades. In the case of floating ice, for example, advances in satellite detection systems will mean safer sailing with fewer restrictions long-term, reducing the need to push the ice gates north to avoid any scares. Ocean sailing should move towards safety which allows for the 'free sailing' that Jean Le Cam calls out for, and technology is the only solution.

Santi Serrat