Southern Ocean support ship
Having originally styled itself as the "no holds barred" unlimited thrash round-the-world for the biggest boats ever built, the event has now put in place a safety net never contemplated by either single-handed round-the-world races or the Whitbread/Volvo.
The vessel in question is not a motorboat but the old maxi-monohull Merit Cup, which will leave Marseilles at the end of the first week in December. Its mission is to take up station in the Indian Ocean, south of Cape Town and then head for southern New Zealand before sailing for Cape Horn.
The initial destination for the "assistance boat" will be between Cape Town and the Kerguelen Islands - the windiest place on earth. The idea is that, as she proceeds to New Zealand she will be about four to five days behind The Race boats and then about nine to 10 days behind at Cape Horn.
The crew for this onerous task will be led by former Whitbread skipper Alain Gabbay and will include a doctor proficient in emergency medicine and professional divers. The boat will carry diving gear and a Zodiac plus new equipment for launching a self-inflating buoy.
According to the organisers, the ex-Merit's schedule will, "enable assistance to be provided in the shortest possible time to the crew of a possibly capsized boat whose self-sufficiency has been estimated at several weeks."
Bruno Peyron, the organiser of The Race, implied that this measure might obviate the need for call-outs of foreign rescue services and navies. "For the first time, on the occasion of The Race, we will have at our disposal a new means, complementary and independent, of providing assistance for a vessel in distress," he said.
The decision to send a yacht is a clear indication of the nervousness of organisers about the likelihood of a serious accident and the fear that a costly rescue of a crew on an untried boat - such as Team Adventure, Code One, Team Legato or Team Philips - will lead to a major international backlash against round-the-world yacht racing.
However it is far from clear whether the presence of this relatively slow yacht on the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean will make much difference to the survival chances of crew lost overboard or the crew of a huge multihull which has capsized.
Meanwhile, the British entrants in this event are continuing to complete the race just to make the start. Both Team Philips and Team Legato are supposed to be in Monaco for The Race Prologue by December 13th, having completed a 2,500-mile non-stop qualifier. However Tony Bullimore's spokesman has said the Prologue may now be skipped out.
Bullimore was supposed to step the mast on Team Legato (ex-ENZA) on Thursday (November 30th) at the boat's current berth in Bristol Docks prior to her official naming on December 1st. However, storm force winds were expected to force a postponement and delay Bullimore's first test sail in a lengthened boat with a new rig until mid-way through the first week in December at the earliest.
Pete Goss, meanwhile, is still in Dartmouth awaiting a weather window to take Team Philips out on another test sail which, this time, may develop into a full qualifier.