Monday, 16 May 2011

Transat Bénodet-Martinique: The Lunven Affair - Storm in a Thermos

Nicolas Lunven winning the Transat Benodet-Martinique on the water. Image copyright Alexis Courcoux.

Translated from text by Valérie Beaulieu and edited by SailRaceWin

The first to have crossed the finish line of the Bénodet-Martinique transatlantic race, Nicolas Lunven was penalized and then stripped of his title. We review this controversy and an extraordinary set of circumstances that have caused the skipper of Generali considerable distress.

The facts

Nicolas Lunven. Image copyright Jean-Marie Liot/Generali.

By taking onboard a closed container, a sort of insulated flask to keep a meal hot, Nicolas Lunven had on board containers "able to contain a liquid in excess of the authorized 25 litres." The subtext: while the main purpose of this container is not to store water, a potential "cheat" might divert it from its intended use. Insofar as it is assimilated to a "container able to hold liquid" and if it is additional to the 25 litres authorized onboard, it is a fault that must incur a penalty.

A strict one-class rule to prevent any shenanigans

The volume of liquid is limited so that the skippers do not use this "weight" as a form of mobile ballast that it can be moved about depending on the boat's trim. Close hauled, for example, it could be moved upwind to decrease the heel angle. The Figaro class is based on a strict one-class design and is aimed at preventing any type of "tinkering." So, in theory, there's nothing shocking about that, especially since the rules are defined by the class, that is, the skippers themselves, and Nicolas Lunven is the current president of the "measurement" committee. The infringement having been noted onboard Generali, her skipper was issued with a 35-minute penalty, corresponding to one minute for every 100 miles of the 3,474-mile course.

First finding. The word "scandal" would never have been mentioned had this transatlantic race had a "conventional" finish, had Lunven beaten his first rival by 36 minutes, a time gap that is totally feasible at the end of transatlantic race. Even with a 35-minute penalty, the skipper of Generali would have retained his first place and his "infringement" would never have been mentioned in the papers or on the Net.

Statistically, even penalized, Lunven should never have lost

Generali (Nicolas Lunven) is first to the line, but second placed Thomas Rouxel is also clearly visible in the picture heading towards the finish. Image copyright Alexis Courcoux.

The problem is that the finish of this transatlantic race was like an inshore regatta, with the first five competitors all arriving within 23 minutes of each other, after more than two weeks at sea. Unprecedented! And the first (Lunven) crossed the line just 165 seconds ahead of the second placed (Rouxel). We have seen a closer finish, but very rarely. Statistically and even penalized, Nicolas Lunven should never have lost this transatlantic race.

Second finding. Had the 25-liter limit been well exceeded, the affair would have been an open-and-shut case. We would have been in the presence of obvious case of cheating and everyone would have been pleased to see the guilty party punished. The problem is that the object in cause, the famous insulated food container, has a capacity of 1.2 litres. Even if Lunven had filled it with water and used it to shift ballast around the boat, what effect would it have had on a boat that has a displacement of more than three metric tonnes?

Third finding. The law is the law. So long as you don't cross the yellow line, you aren't breaking the rules, but as soon as you overstep it, even by two millimetres, then you are in breach of the law. True. But in sailing as elsewhere, the law's application is subject to a jury, which is not to say a court. Should this jury have simply applied the letter of the law or should it have applied the spirit of the law? It chose the letter and its decision is irrefutable in law. Only, it is perhaps not just.

"Given the amount of wind behind, weighing down the boat would penalized its progress"

In reference to this affair, Roland Jourdain admitted, "It's not because you are racing in a highly regulated system (Figaro), that common sense should be thrown out the window. If you are going to refer a matter to a jury, it's precisely to get a balanced decision, not for the judges to act as henchmen." He went on to say, "Given the amount of wind behind they had on this transatlantic race, weighing down the boat would have penalized its progress." Be that with 100 litres or one!

Nicolas Lunven won by a handful of seconds, infringed the rules by a pinch, and was punished by a hair-splitting jury. In the end that's a spadeful of minor details which, taken together, start to look like bucketload of bad luck. In any event, first in real time, Lunven will appear in fifth place in the race annals.

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Transat Benodet-Martinique