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Round-the-world racing yachts: designed to survive

Image credit: Alex Thomson

If you want to win the Vendée Globe, the single-handed, non-stop race around the world, then winning is not your first challenge. Your first challenge is to survive.

It’s the ultimate sailing challenge. The Vendée Globe demands sailors circumnavigate the globe, single-handed, non-stop and unsupported. The main event itself doesn’t set sail until November 2020, but it is the conclusion of a four-year cycle in the sport that is currently ramping up with its main warm-up event, the Transat Jacques Vabre. This is the event that, in many cases, represents a first look at the yachts that will contend for the main prize next year.

The race departed from Le Havre in France on 27 October 2019 and will conclude in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, approximately two weeks later, depending on the conditions of the sea and weather. This is a route that was used in reverse by the French coffee clippers in days gone by and, at 4,350 miles, is the longest trans-Atlantic race.

While there is still plenty of tinkering to be done with the boats before the Vendée Globe, their fundamental design will be that which is launched on the current Transat Jacques Vabre. So, despite being a major event in its own right, the Route du Café as it is colloquially known is also a great indicator of what will happen at the main event next year – an event skipper Alex Thomson describes as ‘our Olympics’. Thomson is one of several British hopefuls, but to date, all the winners of the Vendée Globe have been French.

Thomson’s boat, Hugo Boss, has only been unveiled in recent weeks and has cost somewhere in the region of £6m to design and make. Since Alex Thomson Racing was created in 2003, this will be its seventh Hugo Boss boat and it is the one that Thomson believes can win him the Vendée Globe. Having failed to finish in 2004 and 2008, he was third in 2012, and second last time out in 2016. But before worrying about next year’s big race, the focus is very much on the present. The old adage of “to finish first you first need to finish” is relevant here.

Thomson says: “The [Transat Jacques Vabre] is part of the bedding-in period with the new boat. The first objective is to complete it. Last time I capsized and was airlifted off, so I’m hoping to get to the end this time. The other objective is to be in a position to be thinking about what we want to do to the boat going forward – new foils being made, perhaps.”

Major changes to the hull are not possible at this stage and two other features – the mast and the keel fin – are standard parts. Having these standard parts is welcomed by the teams.

“We are not as well funded as an America’s Cup team, we have got a finite resource and have to decide how to spend it and we have chosen to concentrate on foil development,” comments design manager Peter Hobson at Alex Thomson Racing. “It’s been quite nice to not have to work on the mast and the keel because they are set. It has allowed me to work on other things that I normally wouldn’t have been able to because my time has been diluted.”

Hugo Boss is an International Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA) 60 yacht. It is the only class to take part in the single-handed Vendée Globe but shares the waters with Multi50 (multi hull) and smaller monohull Class40 yachts in the double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre. IMOCA 60s are subject to the box rule that stipulates the length must be 60ft (18m), with a draught (depth from waterline to bottom of keel) of 4.5m and beam (width) of 5.85m. There is also a maximum of five appendages going into the water, which translates to two rudders, the keel and the two daggers (foils). Beyond that, there is a huge opportunity for variation and that has been accentuated this year because more boat designers have been employed.

Last time there were six new boats in the race – it is the new boats that are generally considered the contenders. All of those boats were from the same design outfit – VPLP-Verdier. But this time there are eight new boats, VPLP and Verdier have gone separate ways and are designing for different teams while others have joined the fray. Thomson says: “Last time all the boats were similar. But everything is different this time – all different shapes and sizes.”

It is an evolution from the team’s previous boat. Designer Hobson observes: “They look quite different on the outside, but it is an evolution.”

The sails, for example, were considered to be sufficiently good from the previous generation that there was little value in investing a lot of money and time in improving them. The return just wouldn’t have been there.

“We made them [the boat designers] go back to first principles on so many things,” says Hobson. “In detail, we looked at ten potential hulls and in spectrum we looked at many more. There was a whole CFD programme around that.”

Using the flexibility within the design rules, one interesting feature of the Hugo Boss is that the cabin is moved up to directly behind the mast rather than being at the rear of the boat. Not only does this improve visibility and protection (it is now enclosed), it also allows the cabin structure and keel supports to be shared. Similarly, the winch structure supports the front bench in the cabin.

This all reduces the amount of material, which is mostly carbon fibre. Less weight in the boat means it lifts more easily out of the water and therefore has less drag. The whole boat weighs around 7.6 tonnes, of which two are the hull, two are the things attached onto the hull and the keel is responsible for the remaining four tonnes.

However, it was in foil development that Hobson thought there could be most improvement. “Our objectives were different to other teams. You see this in F1 all the time. Ferrari and Mercedes come up with completely different ways of solving the same problem. We put more weight at the beginning on having a foil that we were in control of. Not necessarily the most powerful foil but the one we could have most control of, that we could make better and better and better in a short space of time.”

Proof of whether this focus on foil development was worth it is being played out in the North Atlantic. With only two days gone in the Route du Café, little separates the front 15 boats, although Hugo Boss has taken a route substantially to the north of the main fleet, presumably in the hunt for better sailing conditions. It is the pre-event favourite Charal that is already out in front, but maybe, about the time this magazine lands on desks, Alex Thomson and his co-skipper Neal McDonald will be making the headlines.

On deck

Life on the ocean wave

I was fortunate enough to be on board when Alex Thomson was playing with his newly delivered Hugo Boss back in September. A relatively flat sea and moderate wind (18 – 20 knots) allowed us to reach speeds of around 33 knots (38mph), which on a boat seems exhilaratingly fast. A relatively flat sea still has waves and one thing that was apparent as the hull of the boat slapped down on them, and the foils, bearing most of the weight of the yacht, cut through them, was that this was a piece of engineering that takes an absolute pounding – and that pounding is relentless. Building a boat that will survive 80 days at sea, travelling at racing speeds, is an engineering marvel in itself.


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