Vendee Globe Race Director
Denis Horeau is one happy man. The long term Race Director of the Vendee Globe says that six months ago they were only expecting 16-17 boats to be on the start line of the seventh singlehnaded non-stop round the world race. “We thought that was the right number,” he says. “No one was expecting as many as 20. Having 20 is absolutely wonderful.”
However there is more.... “But there is something else that I like very much - out of that 20, maybe 12-13 can win. So it is not just 20 boats, it is 20 good boats and the level is very very much closer between the first and the last. This time there are less adventurers than there were before and there are more potential winners. So if we only have 20 boats instead of 30, I don’t care about that. What I care about is having 20 good boats.”
As ever the course for the Vendee Globe is essentially an eastbound lap of the planet via the three ‘great Capes’ – Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn. New for this year is that they have added Gough Island as mark of the course, requiring that the boats leave this to starboard. This shouldn’t be too much of a hardship, based at 44degS 10degW, and will only really make any difference if the boats are forced to remain a long way west as they drop down the South Atlantic.
Beyond this in the Southern Ocean, there are eight mandatory gates. Two of these have been required by the Australian rescue authorities since the disastrous 1996 race when they had to dispatch warships deep into the Southern Ocean in order to rescue Tony Bullimore and Thierry Dubois. Today the organiser of a race passing through these waters has to set waypoints preventing the boats from erring more than 1000 miles away from the reach of the Australian rescue services.
In addition to this there are six ice waypoint gates, as there were in 2008, divided between the Indian Ocean and Pacific. Horeau says that the only change this time is that they need to decide upon the co-ordinates of the ice way gates further in advance than before.
Ice remains the biggest bugbear for organisers of yacht races venturing into the Southern Ocean at present as the satellite tracking technology exists to monitor icebergs, even up to some detail, however the more of this information they get – the greater the frequency, the higher the resolution, etc - the more this information costs. As in the race four years ago, the organisers are once again working with French company CLS to obtain this ice info, which Horeau says can detect icebergs down to 100m in size. “It is really difficult and the budget is quite high, but it is absolutely necessary. There is no other way to do it.”
Horeau says that since he was Race Director of the last Barcelona World Race, he has had to performance a sales job on the teams and competitors on these mandatory course marks: “The ice gates were not really well seen by the sailors. They didn’t like them in 2008, nor in 2010 for the Barcelona World Race. I thought that the skippers didn’t understand the problem, so we did a round table, we gathered 25 people – from [routers] Jean-Yves Bernot and Marcel van Triest and guys from CLS to skippers, routers, meteo people, etc one afternoon and we showed them everything: the way it works, the way to see the ice and at the end of this we asked ‘is there some way to do this better?’ ‘Is there something less bad than ice gates?’ And they said ‘no’. We asked: ‘Do you want to keep on going with the ice gates?’ And they said ‘Yes!’”
As usual the ice gates run along a line of latitude between two points. The boats must pass above this line at some point along its length. The idea is that this is a better solution than a single waypoint as it provides the skippers with the opportunity to decide where along its length they cross it, thus enabling them to avoid bad weather, etc, if required.
A great concern as ever is that on average only 50% of boats make it home, less if the conditions they encounter en route are worse than normal. As Horeau says, what will impress him is not the number of boats at the start, it is the number that will finish. “Only then will we know the quality and reliability of this fleet.”
Horeau also believes that for this Vendee Globe the boats are pretty much at their performance peak within the present IMOCA rule. Fingers crossed, they might be more reliable too: “Because of the damage in the races before, they have thought about it and have changed some things in the structure, the sails, the mast and so on. And I think the skippers are more experienced than they were before, the weather models are better: everything is better.”