Tuesday, 9 April 2013

BWR : IMOCA Class Keels in Focus

Rescate del ACCIONA 100%EcoPowered

Acciona 100%EcoPowered lost her keel and capsized. © Javier Sansó / ACCIONA

by IMOCA Class media, Barcelona World Race

Ahead of the General Assembly taking place on the 18th and 19th of April, IMOCA will be taking decisions on technical matters due set the pace for the future of the class. Yacht reliability and financial costs will be up high on the agenda and are likely also to be key factors in influencing expected changes to the class rules. The most recent edition of the Vendée Globe offers the latest data and issues for debate on the class. In this edition keels have earned the worst press, quite in contrast with the fascinating technological progress on these yachts whose skippers, faced with no rest and a titanic challenge before them, have managed to break records few imagined would be broken.

Round the world regattas are the great test for the IMOCA fleet. The Vendée Globe and the Barcelona World Race form the main stages on which these boats and their skippers give the performances of their lives. The solo Vendée Globe has traditionally been the main axis for technical development of the class. As always, the most significant breakages, causing a total of nine entries to withdraw from the competition in the most recent edition, will provide a focal point for drawing important technical conclusions about the class. They will also provide the main source of reference information for debate at the upcoming IMOCA Class General Assembly. Following the latest edition of the Vendée Globe the dossier for technical work has been packed with new data for reflection, on which important decisions regarding the long term future of the class are likely to be based.

New boats: all in the numbers

As always, the round the world regatta with no external assistance and no stops didn't disappoint. It was a thrilling race where the human story of the challenge was at centre stage and as ever, the admirable experience of these 20 solo skippers was added to by the fascinating display of man and machine battling it out in some of the ocean's most gruelling conditions. It was a particularly exhausting battle in this edition, especially the fight for the lead, featuring incredible performances from François Gabart (MACIF) and Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire) which pushed the record down to below 80 days and saw the skippers reach Les Sables D'Olonne within just over three hours of each other; an incredible feat after a theoretical 24,394 mile course around the globe. The closest previous time between the top two entries was back in the 2004/5 edition when Vincent Riou and second-placed Jean Le Cam finished 6 hours and 33 minutes apart.

At 78 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds, François Gabart sailed at an average speed of 15.29 knots (28,646 actual miles sailed) and in doing so smashed the great record set by Michel Desjoyeaux in the previous edition (84 days, 3 hours, 9 minutes and 8 seconds, at a 14.02 knot average. At just 29 years old he also knocked Alain Gautier ,who won aged 30 in 1992,, off the top of the youngest ever winner list. However, it wasn't only Gabart and Le Cléac'h who were flying across the seas: Alex Thomson finished the regatta in 80 days and 19 hours beating Desjoyeaux's time (with a boat from 2007; the ex-Estrella Damm) and Jean-Pierre Dick who even sailed the final 2,643 miles with no keel was just a couple of days off the bar set by Le Professeur.

Gabart also set another impressive record by sailing 534.8 miles in 24 hours, which means an average speed of 22.27 knots. The previous record held by an IMOCA Open 60 belonged to Jean-Pierre Dick and Loïck Peyron who sailed 506.33 miles in the most recent Barcelona World Race. Solo, with another 30 miles added to the record, clearly set Gabart and MACIF apart and told the story of a stratospheric record achievement.

There will be time further ahead and another article to come examining the technical details behind the data and to look at the technological evolution of the class. What is absolutely clear is that the level of competition pushed to the very limit at the front of the fleet, featuring an incredible duel during the second half of the race between Gabart and Le Cléac'h, generated enough pressure for the man and machine combination to log some incredible racing data.

It's also clear that the “Verdier VPLP generation” have sparked a total turnaround technologically in terms of the design of new boats. The four models from the French studio which took the starting line - MACIF, Banque Populaire, PRB and Virbac-Paprec 3 - came with guaranteed results demonstrated by the boats' superiority in previous races and only Juan Kouyoumdjian's design Cheminées Poujoulat looked able to keep up with them, given Acciona 100% EcoPowered's lack of experience. The combination of lightness and across the board performance of these designs means that at this point in time they are the boats of reference in the class. It's also worth highlighting that the top two entries; MACIF and Banque Populaire were both built at Green Marine and put together at CDK under the direction of Michel Desjoyeaux's Mer Agitée technical crew. It shows that sustained work on the technical side of things yields results, and in this case that means fast and above all reliable boats.

45% drop-out rate: an average rate

A look at the percentage of boats dropping out of this Vendée Globe (45%) reveals a rate that is more or less in line with previous editions. Here below is a table with the abandonment rates for previous IMOCA Class round the world regattas:

Vendée Globe 1989/90: 13 participants / 6 drop-outs (46 %)
Vendée Globe 1992/93: 15 participants / 8 drop-outs  (53 %)
Vendée Globe 1996/97: 15 participants / 9 drop-outs  (60 %)
Vendée Globe 2000/01: 24 participants / 9 drop-outs  (38 %)
Vendée Globe 2004/05: 20 participants / 7 drop-outs  (35 %)
Barcelona World Race 2007/08: 9 participants / 4 drop-outs  (44 %)
Vendée Globe 2008/09: 30 participants / 19 drop-outs (62 %)
Barcelona World Race 2010/11: 14 participants / 5 drop-outs  (36 %)
Vendée Globe 2012/13: 20 participants / 9 drop-outs  (45 %) 
From masts to keels
A far cry from the record set in the previous edition of 62% of entries dropping out of the competition and somewhat closer to the minimum percentage of 35% set in 2004/05. The reason for this improvement in the drop-out rate is a vast decrease in serious rigging breakages (dismastings and rigging damage) which caused 8 boats to abandon racing in 2008/09 (6 dismastings and 2 serious breakages) and in this edition only one dismasting occurred when the mast came down on Sam Davies' Savéol.

However, serious damage to keels has been increasing significantly. In 2008/09 there were 4 cases of serious keel damage (13% of the total number of entries) causing 3 withdrawals (16% of the total number of drop-outs), whilst in this edition there were 5 instances of seriously damaged keels (25% of the total number of participants) causing 4 drop-outs (44% of the total number of drop-outs). That means that broken keels constituted almost half of all of the abandonments during this Vendée Globe and issues with keels have gone up from 13 to 25 per cent. Gérard Le Page, President of Safran Sailing Team's comments after Marc Guillemot's Safran lost her keel early in the regatta are clear: “The impacts suffered by the boat and her appendages were a lot greater and more violent than the design team's estimates had placed them”. This far along it had seemed that the use of titanium was a guarantee for strength but the material is also under coming under suspicion after the malfunction of the hydraulic jack on Jérémie Beyou's Maître CoQ. Michel Desjoyeaux: “It's incredible, this type of component should never break”. Aside from the titanium, it's obvious that the reliability of keels is a priority issue for the IMOCA Class technical committee at the upcoming assembly to be held on the 18th of April.

Here is a list of serious faults or damage sustained by the IMOCA fleet in the Vendée Globe 2012/13.The UFO abandonments really stand out, which was dealt with in a previous article [link] causing 3 boats to drop out in 2008/09 and 3 in 2012/13 with the proportion of withdrawals due to this type of collision rising from 16 to 33%. There is also the issue of collisions with fishing vessels which will be addressed in the future:

Skipper / Boat




Marc Guillemot / Safran
Lost keel, broken keel fin
Metal fatigue, unforeseen by designers
Abandonment of race
Kito de Pavant / Groupe Bel
Hull damage
Collision with fishing vessel
Abandonment of race
Samantha Davies / Savéol
Abandonment of race
Louis Burton / Bureau Vallée
Hull damage
Collision with a fishing vessel
Abandonment of race
Jérémie Beyou / Maître CoQ
Broken titanium keel jack
Impact with UFO and possible fatigue
Abandonment of race
Zbigniew Gutkowski / Energa
Autopilot fault

Abandonment of race
Vincent Riou / PRB
Rigging and hull damage
Collision with UFO
Abandonment of race
Bernard Stamm / Cheminées Poujoulat
Hydro-generator loss
Collision with UFO
Abandoned race after receiving fuel
Bernard Stamm / Cheminées Poujoulat
Hydraulic keel jack breakage
Sailing in survival mode to Les Sables
Jean-Pierre Dick / Virbac-Paprec 3
Loss of keel due to damaged weldox steel keel fin
Probable fatigue
Sailing in survival mode to Les Sables
Bubi Sansó / ACCIONA 100% EcoPowered
Loss of keel due to damaged steel keel fin
Capsized and abandoned race