UFOs, tough as ice... and everywhere

Collisions with Unidentified Floating Objects (UFOs) have shown themselves to pose a considerable danger to sailors, with the rate of accidents and retirements in ocean races shooting up in recent years. This is a reality directly linked to the decline in the marine environment and goes hand in hand with the issue of ice when it comes to developing detection systems. In this article we will take a look at some of the most significant incidents involving floating objects and discuss the vulnerability of modern ocean-going yachts, as well as examining the technology being developed to make them safer.

Articles JAN 26, 2013 01:00

“I heard a loud bang forward of where I was, which I think must have been something hitting either the keel or the daggerboard. I heard a series of softer bangs as whatever I hit bumped along under the hull and a final big bang as it hit the rudder and hydro generator”. These words from Alex Thomson during the Vendée Globe 2012/13 describe the uncertainty and tension that many sailors have experienced as their boats have collided with what is known as a 'UFO': an Unidentified Floating Object. Alex was sailing at over 20 knots at the moment of impact but he was thankfully able to carry out repairs and continue. However, many others who have experienced a similar incident have been unable to continue racing. That was the case for Bernard Stamm who was left without his only functioning hydro generator and forced to request assistance in the form of fuel following a collision with an object on Cheminées Poujoulat.

Container a la deriva

Just a few weeks earlier Jérémie Beyou had experienced some serious damage to his keel after an impact with an object, and one of Vincent Riou's outriggers was completely destroyed by a harbour buoy adrift in the ocean. Later, Bubi Sansó was also the victim of a collision, although he was somewhat more fortunate than his fellow sailors. On the 9th of December the Spaniard reported: “Today I collided with an object that I wasn't able to see but I could definitely hear it. I saw an orange object floating behind me in the wake of the boat. I immediately thought that it was a broken rudder but now I think it was one of the caps that is on the keel, under the hull, designed to make sure there is less resistance to the water around the whole keel area. Once I get to an area of calmer water, I will go into the water to check the area of impact. I have looked with the endoscope but haven’t been able to see the area where the keel joins the hull very well. The boat isn’t making any kind of strange vibration, nor has it reduced its speed. There is also the chance that I might have hit something floating that is orange”. At the time of writing this article MACIF is a few hundred miles from the finish of the Vendée Globe 2012/13 and the race has notched up three withdrawals from the competition due to collisions with UFOs. It is also worth making note of the collisions with trawlers which have sunk any hopes of finishing the regatta for skippers Kito de Pavant and Louis Burton, although this is an issue which deserves a separate article in itself.  

The cause of dramatic accidents

Colgado de un improvisado arnés

During the long history of the solo round the world regatta, incidents with solid objects adrift in the sea have reached into the tens and by far outnumber the number of incidents with floating ice, which have thankfully resulted in nothing more than a few scares with no serious consequences so far. However, the problem of UFOs has been growing over the past few decades and now seems to have consolidated itself as a serious risk to skippers and their yachts. In the Vendée Globe 2008 three skippers were forced to abandon the competition after crashes with UFOs: Unai Basurto and Jean-Pierre Dick with broken rudders and Jean Le Cam who lost the bulb in an accident which caused the boat to capsize and put the skipper's life in danger until he was rescued by Vincent Riou. In the same edition of the regatta, Roland Jourdain lost the keel of Veolia Environnement after a collision with a sea mammal which saw him retreat to the Azores, whilst Marc Guillemot suffered a similar incident but was able to take Safran back to Les Sables D'Olonne, sailing without a keel. Including Jourdain's cetacean incident (which is another issue to be explored in a separate article) that edition of the solo competition saw four abandonments due to collisions, which is a figure close to the six broken masts. The proportion seems to be roughly the same currently, with 30 yachts taking the start in 2008 whilst only 20 were on the starting line for this edition.

A similar track record in terms of incidents, although not in the number of entries dropping out of the regatta, can be found in the Barcelona World Race. In the first edition in 2007 Guillermo Altadill and Jonathan McKee's Estrella Damm suffered damage which proved to be irreparable once they reached Cape Town. In the South Pacific Jean-Pierre Dick and Damian Foxall were forced to carry out repairs to a rudder blade whilst racing (see photo 1) although Dominique Wavre and Michèle Paret were more fortunate in their encounter with an object in the South Atlantic: “We heard a 'bang' and we immediately brought our sails down”, explained Wavre.“Everything seemed to be in order and we took a look at the keel through the endoscope: false alarm, we breathed a sigh of relief”. We all remember the spectacular repair job carried out in the Barcelona World Race 2010/11 by Iker Martínez and Xabi Fernández on board MAPFRE after one of their daggerboards was seriously damaged following a collision (see photo 2). It's also likely that a UFO was the cause of damage to the crash-box on Michel Desjoyeaux and François Gabart's Foncia which forced the pair to retreat to Recife, 

Iker Martínez y Xabi Fernández

Whilst the significance of these accidents can sometimes become diluted in the sea of information generated by ocean-going regattas, one particular incident highlighted the problem in dramatic fashion: Banque Populaire V's abandonment of her first attempt at the Jules Verne Trophy with Pascal Bidégorry in 2011. The maxi-trimaran, whose navigator was Spain's Joan Vila, crashed into a UFO in the Southern Ocean whilst sailing at a whopping 37 knots. The impact destroyed one of the daggerboards and damaged the crash box dispensing also with any hopes of Banque Populaire V finishing the record (see photo 3). However, as Pascal commented, the damage could have been much worse if the object had collided with the central hull, given that the energy unleashed by a collision at that speed is enormous.  

In transatlantic racing there was also the sadly famous taking on water incident in the Transat Jaques Vabre 2009 when Hugo Boss with Alex Thomson and Ross Daniel suffered a collision with a UFO; and Bernard Stamm and Jeff Cuzon had to be rescued by helicopter in the 2011 edition after a blow to the bow of Cheminées Poujoulat which partly sank, although it was eventually able to be hauled to the Azores.

The fragility of a racing yacht 

Daños en la orza del maxi-trimarán Banque Populaire V

Modern ocean yachts are extremely vulnerable to impacts with solid objects floating in the sea. Beyond the risk of damage to the hull leading to an ingress of water, there is a constant risk to appendages such as the keel, the daggerboards and the rudder blades which form a front stretching along almost the entire beam of the boat.  

The appearance of transom hung kick up rudders became an almost obligatory feature due to the problem of collisions, with traditional rudders going through the hull posing the risk of, and in fact causing some serious incidents of boats taking on water. After being developed for use in the Mini Class, Michel Desjoyeaux was the first to introduce the rudder to the IMOCA Open 60s on PRB in the Vendée Globe 2000/01. In that race Desjoyeaux employed a blade system where the blades could also be substituted by a part of the daggerboard, which meant carrying a pair of spares and significant improvements in terms of the security of being able to replace appendages.   

The first generation of kick up rudders solved the issue of structural damage danger but were fragile, and the 'fuse' system in the case of an impact didn't work as well as planned although newer designs have been improved considerably. However an Achilles heel for ocean-going yachts has emerged: the hydro generators. These are a pair of appendages which are of increasing importance in the race towards saving energy but are even more vulnerable than rudders in the face of floating objects. They are now as crucial in terms of continuing the race as rudders or daggerboards (we must also remember the case of Bernard Stamm, cited above). 

Colgado de un improvisado arnés

There is little skippers can do to avoid these collisions. On the other hand, many UFOs are almost impossible to detect as they may be semi-submerged and often peek out above the water surface by just a few centimetres, such as plastic containers and containers with water inside.  

The first technological attempt to detect objects to the bow of the boat in question was carried out by an infrared camera on Marc Guillemot's Safran in the Vendée Globe 2008/09 (see photo 4). The system was based on the analysis of pictures taken by a camera using specially developed software which triggered an alarm if any suspicious images came through. The experience wasn't satisfactory due to the complex nature of the software development, which would also push the price of implementing it up considerably. Vincent Riou tried a similar system for a few months ahead of the present Vendée Globe when he attached a camera with a stabilising lens to a four metre post fitted to the bow of PRB. The 10,000€ price tag for the equipment and the fragile mode of installation and added costs for software development meant that the skipper decided to do without it.  

There can be no doubt that future solutions involve a mixed approach, with the development of satellite detection technology and on board systems which deal with both the problems of floating objects and floating ice together.  

Where do UFOs come from?

There are two main sources of UFOs: natural sources, such as tree trunks dragged down into rivers and out to sea, and those produced by human activity, which are the more common kind. It is estimated that container ships lose almost 10,000 containers at sea every year, usually during storms. Then there are plastic containers and other objects which are tossed into the sea irresponsibly, both from on land and from on board boats. There are also other objects floating in the sea such as debris from shipwrecks and buoys floating adrift after they are torn away by bad weather. 

La cámara infrarroja instalada en el palo del Safran

This problem is directly linked to the issue of sea contamination by other solid debris such as plastics and nets adrift in the oceans which wreak havoc on marine fauna. In the next round-table debate to be broadcast live on this website, Jorge Luis Valdés, a scientist from the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, will discuss the matter with navigator Joan Vila and weather expert Marcel Van Triest

Santi Serrat