Across oceans: navigating the seas in Jules Verne Trophy record attempt
Image credit: Yann Riou/Polaryse/Gitana SA
Inspired by the novel ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, the Jules Verne Trophy is more than just a prize for the fastest circumnavigation of the world.
At the threshold of some of the remotest waters on Earth, crew on board a giant ‘flying’ trimaran reluctantly agreed to abandon one of sailing’s most ambitious attempts – to sail around the world in under 40 days.
This extraordinary challenge – to fly across oceans, hitching a ride on benevolent weather systems and dodging ice and storms – has fostered some of the greatest technological and engineering innovation the yachting world has seen.
Damage to part of a 200kg rudder put paid to the hopes of the French crew on board Maxi Edmond de Rothschild this year, but not before they set a new record. Departing from Brittany on a cold January night, they sailed south to the Cape of Good Hope in a record 11 days, 9 hours, and 53 minutes, reaching a dazzling top speed of 48.5 knots.
When they were forced to quit, they were 860 miles ahead of the current record holder and about to embrace the notorious Southern Ocean. “We will just have to try again,” said project manager Sebastien Sainson shortly after speaking to the six-strong Team Gitana who were, he said, “in good spirits”. “It’s a huge disappointment,” said co-skipper Charles Caudrelier, after his team mate had inched along the outer starboard hull to inspect the damage. “This boat was built for this trophy.”
They endured days of living in a small shell occasionally pushing 40 knots – though the trimaran is vast – some 23m wide and 32m long – the narrow cockpit is spartan, creature comforts are scarce and weight is critical. “The hull is single-skin carbon – at sea it’s like having a hammer banging on a piece of metal inside – really, really noisy,” says Sainson.
Above the water, the elegant 32m trimaran ‘flies’ up on breathtaking hydrofoils, designed to bounce gracefully across offshore waves and swells. This is one of the first Ultime class trimarans, first launched in 2017 and a year-and-a-half in the building. Since then, designers have constantly tweaked the set-up before attempting to seize the Jules Verne Trophy, one of the most prestigious prizes in offshore racing and awarded to the yacht which can sail fastest around the world.
Team Gitana has been backed up by a 24-strong shore-based team who decipher meteorological data around the clock and analyse information from some 500 onboard sensors, which relay the loading and strains upon rigging, sails and foils.
How it came about
Hydrofoils have been around for many years, but more recently have transformed elite yacht racing. Designing foils to cope with the open seas has been a challenge – met by renowned French marine architect Guillaume Verdier, who’s worked on the cutting-edge boats of the America’s Cup.
The trimaran’s L-shaped foils measure 5m – all appendages have trim tabs for control and the T-foil rudders help stabilise the boat and prevent it pitchpoling. Custom-made hydraulics onboard help the crew control centre board, rudders and foils.
This isn’t their first unsuccessful attempt – in November the crew were forced to retire three days in after smashing into an unidentified floating object while sailing at 30 knots between the Azores and Madeira. This time around it became clear that the starboard rudder stock was seriously damaged and the prospect of the Southern Ocean was unthinkable. Until the boat is back in Brittany, the team won’t know what has stopped them.
Contrary to appearances, says Sainson, the solid laminated carbon foils are exceptionally sturdy and the hydraulics help absorb the impact of the waves – they also give a more comfortable ride “like the suspension on a rally car”, he adds. “People think they must be fragile – but quite the contrary. We’ve tested them – it would take more than 80 tonnes to break the main foils. They’re strong enough to crash into a wall at speed and not break. It’s like a game to achieve the thinnest but strongest design possible.” Rules forbid a level of automation so sailors winch the foils up and down with hydraulics, generating forces of 20 tonnes.
Hitting an object was always a possibility – floating obstacles, whales and icebergs are just some of the many unpredictable hazards facing challengers. Since the beginning of the year, the boat’s centreboard has been fitted with a modified Australian-made “whale pinger” designed for fishing boats, says Sainson, though they haven’t yet discovered how well it works.
Oddly, weather is one of the variables over which they have more control compared to the ocean-going adventurers of old, who were at the mercy of vicious storms. A team of meteorological experts are continuously analysing weather data, led by acclaimed veteran Marcel van Triest who’s helped on numerous campaigns and navigated the current record-holder, Idec Sport, to success – in 2017 the maxi trimaran finished the challenge in the current record of 40 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds.
A Jules Verne challenger can pick their weather window – with optimum departure between November and mid-February. Misjudgement of the conditions can make all the difference. Not only do the departing team have to consider the immediate conditions in the Atlantic, they must look ahead to the Indian and Southern Oceans and assess the best chances of hitching a ride on an eastward-bound low-pressure system.
“We can know the first week with great precision,” says Sainson, “but after that it’s more down to luck.” But the speed of these boats allows them literally to pick their weather – accelerating or hanging back to make the most of a weather system and largely avoiding storm winds and vicious seas. “Today it’s so much easier – we can choose not to get caught in onerous waves.”
The route for circumnavigators
In the run up to the latest challenge, the team analysed the last 12 years’ worth of weather data, running 6,000 routings to understand patterns and conditions. On shore, the team communicate with the crew, poring over live satellite images and chatting cloud formations.
As the boat made its way further south, van Triest ordered more accurate information from specialist providers, who use a combination of SAR (synthetic aperture radar) imagery and altimetry – cross-referenced with shipping data – and sea-surface temperature data to identify potential icebergs and help forecast their positions. It’s an art, says Sainson, to know where you will be when, to request the right image, and such services are expensive. “But hitting an iceberg at 35 knots doesn’t bear thinking about.” This time, the team was able to share the costs of information on floating ice with challengers on the single-handed Vendee Globe round-the-world race taking place at the same time.
As the boat bounces above the waves flying on foils for most of the time, the team is keen to get the best from her. Brittany-based engineering firm Pixel sur Mer have worked with Team Gitana to create embedded electronics to tweak flaps on appendages to keep the boat steady. “They’ve built a flight controller on board that stabilises the boat – it’s completely new and we are the first to use it,” says Sainson.
On-board electronics are powered by solar and wind energy, and there’s a tiny diesel engine for backup.
On-board sensors reveal the stress and strains of flying across open seas, with fibre optics in the foils, centreboard and rudders as well as within the hull and mast bulkhead. Load sensors measured the forces on pins, mast shackles and forestays, while hydraulic sensors measure pressure within the slew of hydraulic systems on board. An inertial unit measures acceleration and deceleration.
On shore, the team keeps track of the figures. “Everything important has a sensor so we know what’s going on at any one time,” says Sainson. If the crew are overstretching, alarms will sound on board. “We’ll tell them to go faster or slower depending on the information. Sometimes they feel they might be pushing the boat too hard, and we’ll tell them that’s OK, the data is fine. But it’s like a racing car – it can’t go high speeds for too long.” During this attempt, the boat “flew” on foils between 50 to 60 per cent of the time, says Sainson.
In total, onboard sensors log some 15,000 data points a second, “so the total data from 40 days is enormous – we need help to know what to do with it – it’s early days,” says Sainson. The team plans to work with experts to harness artificial intelligence to help analyse data from this attempt and optimise the boat’s performance.
“A lot of people say it’s a boat controlled on land but that’s not true. Skippers Charles (Caudrelier) and Franck (Cammas) have known the boat for two years.” In 2019, they clinched the prestigious Fastnet Race. “It’s those on board who can see the state of the sea – they see and feel things before we have the information ourselves. We can never take that from them.”
There’ll be no further attempt this year for Team Gitana – the weather window has closed. As the team interrogates the data and tries to discover what went wrong with the rudder, the trimaran and her crew will be busy preparing for other offshore races – next winter there’s a biannual transatlantic race, Transat Jacques Vabre. They will be back.
Edmond de Rothschild: the first-ever hydrofoiling maxi trimaran
Hull length: 32m
Weight: 15.5 tonnes
L shaped hydrofoils: 5m, allowing it to ‘fly’ in light winds (14 knots upwards)
Maximum speed: 49.3 knots
15 hydraulic cylinders (made by Harken) control: shroud tension, centreboard and rudder control, mainsheet and outhaul and foil flaps.
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