Vendée success for a thriving class

The latest edition of the Vendée Globe was a huge sporting success which highlighted the thriving nature of the IMOCA class and the exciting possibilities on the horizon for yachts and teams. The next date in the diary: The Barcelona World Race 2018-19.

Articles MAR 16, 2017 10:00

For the first time in history, 18 solo sailors crossed the finishing line of the Vendée Globe. That figure tells a tale of sporting success, with the 11 who didn’t make it to the finish pitching the percentage of withdrawals from the race at just 38%, among the lowest in the history of the competition (35% in 2004, 38% in 2000). That’s a healthy distance from the 63% drop-out rate in 2008 and it shows that the boats in the IMOCA class are fighting fit. This year saw the broadest range of boat ages yet to take the start line; 18 years separated St Michel-Virbac, with skipper Jean-Pierre Dick (2015) and TechnoFirst, with Sébastien Destremau (1998). The 50-day difference in finishing time between Destremau and winner Armel Le Cléac’h may look to some like a considerable gap, however in a non-stop round the world race such as this it’s not; in 2000 the time difference between the first and last yachts was 65 days.

The great shift seen in the competition this year is mainly down to the spectacular speed gains introduced by the foilers. Armel Le Cléac’h finished in 74 days, 03 hours, and 35 minutes; Alex Thomson in 74 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes and both topped the previous record set by François Gabart, whilst Destremau logged a similar time to boats from the same generation in previous editions of the solo race. The foilers have passed their first big exam with flying colours and foils are now an essential design feature for new builds.

Another encouraging stat from the round the world challenge is the low percentage of broken masts; only four masts gave way (13.5% of the fleet), compared to 8 in 2008 (27% of the total fleet). The keels are also looking stronger; only three drop-outs due to this vital organ, which constitutes 10%, compared to 20% in 2012, which really was an anus horribilis for the keel and led to changes to class rules for the appendage and for masts. The new recommendations and rules have made all the difference to the health of the class.

One of the greatest threats to transoceanic yachts is still UFO (unidentified floating object) collisions. Four of the eleven incidences of boats abandoning the race from this Vendée were due to collisions with floating objects. Large sea creatures also pose a danger, with Kito de Pavant’s IMOCA hitting a sperm whale, causing serious keel damage and ultimately the loss of the boat. The problem is now so widespread that it is an added dose of stress for the solo sailors, many of whom have said that they sleep with their feet pointing towards the bow to limit neck and back problems in case of a collision.  (See incredible video of Kito de Pavant;s collision with a sperm whale)

The great triumph of the latest Vendée Globe was the thrill of an epic sporting challenge; of humans taking on the elements. The 18 finishers set a record and also wrote a thrilling tale of Vendée racing between them, such as the hand to hand battle betwee Le Cléac’h and Thomson, a spectacular regatta by Jérémie Beyou and the three-boat match race between Jean-Pierre Dick, Yann Eliès and Jean Le Cam. This edition also saw some epic struggles with misfortune such as Kito de Pavant’s rescue by a French supply ship and Conrad Colman’s finish under a makeshift jury rig, which tell a story of incredible resilience and seafaring knowhow.

Another sign that the fleet is in good health is the broad span of ages of the skippers taking part. The start line saw 66 year-old Rich Wilson line up against 24 year-old Alan Roura, setting another Vendée Record, this time for the age range of participants. The fleet had three skippers in their sixties which pushed the average age up to 44 for this edition. Seasoned skippers lining up against relative newcomers is another great sign that the IMOCA class is pulsating with life.

This has been a thrilling Vendee Globe for Spanish sailing too. Didac Costa has now entered the ranks of sailing’s experts; the fireman from Barcelona has followed in the wake of Jose Luís Ugarte who died aged 80 in 2008, to become the second Spanish ever sailor to complete this Everest of sailing. His race is another great example of great project management and the successful harnessing of sporting potential. Didac sailed as a Barcelona World Race 2018 ambassador and this round the world test is a great departure point for the next big date on the IMOCA calendar.