Vendée Globe: these foils that make sailing more and more dangerous

It has always been dangerous to go alone to face the depressions of European autumn or the 100 km / h wind from the deep south. The Vendée Globe deplores three missing in 1992 and 1996 and “The fear of losing a sailor is still present even if the nature of the danger has changed a little”, points out Denis Horeau, a long time race director and author of My Vendée Globe, published in early October (1).

There is no such thing as zero risk of shipwreck or disappearance, but the race organization has developed a sophisticated safety device, designed to guarantee the best chances for the 33 competitors to return safely. In good health ? It is less safe for the fastest, aboard one of the 19 boats equipped with foils, which must complete the tour of the world in less than 75 days, some being designed to beat the record of 74 days set by Armel Le Cléach ‘during the 2016-2017 edition.

Skippers have to take huge shocks

The price of the speed of these semi-flying machines is heavy for skippers now prepared as high level athletes. “The back and abdominal sheathing has become an essential component of the preparation”, says Doctor Jean-Yves Chauve, head of the Vendée Globe medical service. Capable of accelerating suddenly, these foiling boats are also much more sensitive to the risk of charging, otherwise known as a “buffet stop”: the flying boat suddenly descends to the level of the waves it hits violently. “ Decelerations were measured at 3G, ie the equivalent of three times the weight of the body ”, explains Antoine Mermod, president-navigator of the Imocas class, these 18m monohulls authorized to race the Vendée Globe.

These measures are comparable to those received by Formula 1 drivers. The analogy with motorsport, offensive to lovers of adventure sailing, is increasingly relevant on these noisy and dangerous boats. By cutting the wave, the foils produce a high-pitched whistle which forces skippers to wear earplugs. They are also very numerous to adopt navigation seats equipped with harnesses that they will buckle in case of heavy seas. “After being deprived of lift for a few fractions of a second, these 6-ton flying monsters can fall heavily on the water, causing extremely violent shocks that can knock everything down in the cockpit, including the guy”, continues Antoine Mermod.

“Until now, skippers were subjected to traumas of the order of bobology, explains the current race director, Jacques Caraës. Today it is a serious fracture or head trauma that we fear. ” Not to mention that the extreme conditions and the desire to widen the gap with the little comrades induce great fatigue from the first days of racing. “ This fatigue and the noise can cause hypovigilance, which can lead to maneuvering errors with serious consequences ”, continues Doctor Chauve who follows the evolution of ocean racing with a concern tinged with philosophy. “It’s a race and we are not going to prevent them from doing everything to go fast. “

Boats also more exposed

The oldest of the fleet Jean Le Cam, 61 years old (winner of three Solitaires du Figaro and 2e Vendée Globe 2004), leaving for the fifth time aboard Yeswecam, a traditional boat, is rather reserved for the race ahead of the foilers: “Not sure many make it home without breakage. My boat and I are fine where we are. “

The risk of breakage for skippers is indeed of the same order for their increasingly fast, light and fragile mounts. “Sailors are almost more afraid of an accident for the boat than for themselves”, emphasizes Antoine Mermod. All fear for their mast or the integrity of the appendages (rudders, keel, foils). And the foilers will leave the Vendée with a tenfold fear, due to their performance, of hitting a floating object. “It’s mathematical, continues Antoine Mermod, the foils induce a greater width, the risks are therefore greater. And as they go faster, the human and material consequences of collisions are also more serious. “


Abs and weather on the menu of confined skippers

Long before the government announcements, the 33 competitors had been warned that they should remain confined at least a week before departure, to avoid leaving with the virus. Deprived of access to the pontoons, they fall back on the ultimate preparation within their reach: sit-ups and exercise bikes, useful for strengthening the lower limbs. Another activity, the study of the weather, more and more assiduous as November 8 approaches. The latest forecasts are reassuring with calm seas at the start, before business gets tough off Portugal.


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