Knowing the Ropes

Knowing the Ropes

Monday April 15 2013 Author: Caterham Composites Location: Germany



Marine, Offshore Racing 


To ensure Alex Thomson Racing gets the technical support from Caterham Composites  during one of the most challenging offshore races in the world - the Vendée Globe.


Caterham Composites committed time, effort and engineering know-how throughout the Vendée Globe with special focus on the structural lightweight parts of the HUGO BOSS boat.  


During his 80 days 19 hours 23 minutes 43 seconds round-the-world, single-handed yacht race, this support resulted in Alex Thomson’s 3rd position achieved on 30 January 2013, entering the port of Les Sables D’Olonne, France at 07:25 local time.


The Vendée Globe, founded by Philippe Jeantot in 1989, is a round-the-world single-handed yacht race. The race is sailed non-stop and without any assistance. The 7th edition of the Vendée Globe started in Les Sables d’Olonne, France on 10th November 2012 taking the skipper past the Cape of Good Hope, around Antartica, and back to Les Sables d’Olonne leaving the three great capes to port. 


In December 2011 the partnership between Alex Thomson Racing and Caterham Composites began. The developments and improvements to the current HUGO BOSS yacht, originally launched in July 2007, supported Alex Thomson competing in the Vendée Globe 2012. Caterham Composites provided engineering expertise in structural lightweight solutions to decrease weight and increase safety and reliability simultaneously. The combination of nautical and marine expertise provided by Alex Thomson Racing and the experience in lightweight structures of Caterham Composites, delivered a great boat, a great team and a great result.

There is a high failure rate during the race, so the team asked for structural lightweight solutions for parts that might suffer damage. Alex’s primary aim was to finish the race. During the Vendée Globe the skippers encountered extreme storms, giant waves and the ever-present danger of floating objects in the water. Any of these can cause damage and end the race immediately. In addition to these risks, the lack of engineers, designers, mechanics meant everything had to be done entirely by one single person: Alex himself. However, as soon as Alex experienced some difficulties his team and Caterham Composites were available to come up with the most efficient, safest and quickest solution to guarantee finishing the race and his safety. 


(Photo by Christophe Launay)


The Vendée Globe is one of the most challenging sporting events - circumnavigating the globe, alone, without assistance. Within two weeks, Alex had to make his first repair. The hydrogenerator started resonating due to a malfunction in the system. The extremely violent motion caused the generator to come off its mountings and skim behind the boat traveling at high speeds. It suddenly dug into the water and then launched itself at the boat. A broken tie-bar was the result, although in hindsight the damage could have been far worse considering the force of the blow. Hugo Boss has two rudders, one for each side of the boat, the tie-bar connects the central tiller to the two rudders. Without this bar, the rudder is not connected and the boat cannot be steered.

Alex hit an unknown object on 10th December causing rudder damage and destroying one hydrogenerator. The starboard rudder fuse broke, the hydrogenerator blade was damaged and one of the brackets was in pieces and eventually lost overboard. The hydrogenerator is a primary source of power for HUGO BOSS, it generates electricity by spinning a propeller as the boat moves through the water. It can be incredibly efficient and delivers significant weight gains compared to carrying the equivalent power in diesel.The hydrogenerator is needed for Alex’s autopilot as well as his computers for navigation and communication. Most importantly, it powers the water maker. The major challenge was to reduce the power supply to a minimum to save diesel, but at the same time give Alex the option of downloading the weather forecast or communicate with the team.


In order to support Alex and the team, we were on standby throughout the entire race to react immediately and provide our engineering knowledge and experience.

To provide any effecitve solution, the key is getting ‘flow of information.’ We have a clear communication path between, Alex, the team and Caterham Composites. Alex describes the problem, the team details the spares available on board, and we start to discuss concepts. We start with sketches, remaining spares, weather conditions, complexity, temperature, performance and then we turn the sketches into 3D geometries and work out how strong these will be.

A good example of this is the repair to the hydrogenerator bracket, which broke after it hit an unknown floating object.

Due to the power restrictions that resulted from the impact, photos were limited so we had to rely on descriptions from Alex who, by this point, had been racing for 6 weeks with minimal sleep. Despite this we were confident that only the top bracket had been damaged and this is where we focused our attention. After a long phone call one evening discussing concepts, ATR sent us a sketch on a scanned photograph (see below) and a list of the materials available. With this we started to model the concept in CAD, the model would provide three functions, a representation and screenshots of the build process, drawings for use as templates and the basis for finite element analysis to determine the safety factors. The repair was a series of flat panels joined together and then laminated onto the boat. This would provide simple geometries for Alex to cut, and allow the repair to be done in stages rather than needing a long weather window. The stages were: measure, cut, dry fit, laminate, fit hydro, test. Along with the drawings and pictures of the model, ATR wrote an instruction manual for Alex to follow. The pictures that followed the successful test showed Alex had done an excellent job and it allowed him to come out of power saving mode and continue in the race and onwards to a final third place.

(Photo by Christophe Launay)

CATIA Screenshor Hydrogenerator 

Part of the broken hydrogenerator 


With a very well prepared skipper Alex Thomson, his racing team, and Caterham Composites’ unrivalled structural solutions, Alex finished the Vendée Globe 2012 in 3rd place on 30th January 2013 with his HUGO BOSS yacht. 

“The support from our technical partner, Caterham Composites, was vital” said Alex Thomson. “Six weeks without the hydrogenerator were challenging and exhausting, but my shore team and the experts from Caterham Composites managed to fix the damage and made my finish possible.”

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