Debate at Vendée Globe: is it all the fault of foils?

PRB , Kevin Escoffier’s Imoca sunk 800 miles south of Cape Town. Launched in 2010, it was an older generationImoca refitted with foils.

Foil yes, foil no, foil up and foil down. Between the Vendée Globe and the America’s Cup, it seems that the actuality of modern sailing, and its debate, all revolves around this magic word, these appendages that have catapulted sailing at great speed into the future. The story by Kevin Escoffier, who 800 miles south of Cape Town saw his boat split in half, its bow at a 90-degree angle to the sky, has left an important emotional mark on the audience that is following the most iconic round-the-world race there is. In the dock of the defendants ended up, as by the way is logical, them, the “damned” foils, accused of having taken sailing in a wrong direction, too far from the reality of the average sailor, who finds it hard to identify with these flying machines even defined as dangerous for the very safety of the skippers. A reader wrote us an email, some significant passages of which we quote below, to express his views:

Foils greatly increase the performance of the boat, but in long races such as a
Vendée Globe they could cause significantly greater stresses on the structural part of the

boat, as we have seen, after just 22 days of racing there have already been three retirements
For structural failure. Bumping into a floating object at 10 kts will surely cause less damage than at a rate twice as fast, just think of the normal crash-tests performed on the automobiles. Are they therefore a safe solution or not?
Thomson, aboard his Imoca 60 Hugo Boss, was banking everything on speed by taking

the boat constantly to the limit, resulting first in structural damage and then in the breaking of a
rudder due to impact with an unidentified object. If he had sailed at 10 kts the system of fuses would have allowed the rudder not to compromise and minimize breakage, perhaps. Given for certain that Thomson was racing aboard a boat that was impeccable in terms of its engineering, followed and designed by a team of super experts, I am left wondering whether this constant pursuit of unbridled speed makes us somewhat forget the priorities of racing, considered the Everest of regattas, at the expense of boat strength and durability. I certainly don’t want to say that Foils are not a revolutionary and fascinating solution, but to In my opinion you have to find a compromise between the two, as our compatriot Giancarlo Pedote – Ocean Sailor who despite using a boat modern and equipped with Foils puts the safety of the boat first, seeking to preserve it and not stressing it too much by treasuring seafaring and life experience, aiming to get to rather than winning, having traveled 24,000 nm and completed a round-the-world trip in lonely, regardless of the ranking. In my humble opinion, I believe that to this day in the Vendée Globe they are constantly pushing boats to the limit, forgetting that already being able to complete the race without breakage is the real win, personally and in life“. Peter Valente

The Imoca 60 foiler Corum was the first 2020 edition retreat after dismasting.

The issue raised by Peter is serious and deserves an equally serious and structured response, with due clarification. Let’s start with one fact: by now, even Mini 650s often sail well Over 10 knots of speed. High performance of the rest has certainly not been a priority of foilers; the old Imocas already from the 2000 Vendée Globe edition onward are capable of sailing well above 20 knots, or touching and exceeding 30, without the need for foils. Rudders have always been an Achilles heel of ocean openers, as have keels and masts. If one sailed at averages of 10 knots or slightly above, the damage in colliding with an object would certainly be less, but it would mean going back practically 30 years, when the Vendèe Globe was completed in more than 100 days and rudders, masts and keels were still broken.

The starboard foil of Arkea Paprec seriously damaged by collision with a UFO in recent hours.

The foils certainly increased speed averages in a major way, tweaking the top peaks upward a bit, but at 30 knots the Imoca had been there for quite some time. It is also worth mentioning some data here. On Dec. 1, 2009, when foils were unheard of, Michel Desjoyeaux with Foncia broke through the 30-knot wall, and he was hardly the first man to do so in a sailboat. Some will remember the Professor’s feat in that edition. Foncia had to return to shore a few hours after the start due to a technical problem, restart 48 hours after the others, and then win, with record, the regatta. Few had the courage to accuse Professor Desjoyeaux of being too fast, or of pushing his boat too hard. Certainly with an appendage in the water that increases the width of the boat the possibility of a collision with an object is increased, and certainly foils impose important structural criticalities that designers try to prevent. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, but this is not a n0vity for the Vendée Globe. It is also not true that there are more immersed appendages than in the past. The upwind foil is always out of the water, the downwind foil is submerged as was already done with the daggerbords of the old Imoca; the total number of submerged appendages is the same.

The old Hugo Boss was the first Imoca to mount large foils. She dominated the 2016 Vendée almost all the way to Cape Town, then a collision with a stray object deprived her of a foil, but that did not stop her from finishing second by putting on a show and setting a record for miles, 535, in the 24 hours, a record still unbeaten.

There is one thing that is necessary to keep in mind. The Vendèe Globe will also be a fantastic human adventure. But it is still a regatta and is classified as such. If it is a regatta, and there is a leaderboard, there will always be some skipper trying to engineer a way to make those 25,000 miles of Oceans as fast as possible. It is part of human history, and of course the history of sailing, to constantly attempt to push the limits, and the Vendée Globe is certainly no exception. Foils are a new tool to go beyond these limits (in this case the limit is the hydrodynamic resistance of the water), but no one has forced skippers to use them. No one forced the designers to design them this size (there is no size limit in the Imoca box rules). No one is forcing skippers to push the boat 100%. But some people do, simply because they want to win the regatta. And as long as the Vendée Globe is a race all this will be repeated.

It is said that since there have been foils the breakdowns, accidents, and structural problems have increased. We went to reconstruct then the statistics of the Vendée Globe, regarding withdrawals, from the 2000 edition onwards. We chose this watershed because it is roughly since 2000 that the Imoca class has definitely taken a leap forward.

VENDEE GLOBE 2000-2001

Winner Michel Desjoyeaux in 93 days 3 hours 57 minutes

Departed: 24

Withdrawn: 9

VENDEE GLOBE 2004-2005

Winner Vincent Riou in 87 days, 10 hours, 47 minutes

Departed: 20

Withdrawn: 7

VENDEE GLOBE 2008-2009

Winner Michel Desjoyeaux in 84 days, 3 hours, 9 minutes

Departed: 30

Withdrawn: 18

VENDEE GLOBE 2012-2013

Winner François Gabart in 78 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes

Departed: 20

Withdrawn: 9

VENDEE GLOBE 2016-2017 (ERA FOILER)

Winner Armel Le Cleac’h in 74 days, 3 hours and 35 minutes

Departed: 29 (including 6 foilers)

Retired: 11 (including 2 foilers)

VENDEE GLOBE 2020-2021

Departed: 33 (including 18 foilers)

Withdrawn to date: 3 foilers

The first thing that jumps out at you is how from edition to edition the time gets lower and lower. This confirms that, even in the spirit of human adventure, there are those who do this regatta with the goal of winning and going fast. In light of the statistics on withdrawals, we observe that the total percentage of withdrawals, compared to starters, in the three pre-foiler editions is more than 50 percent. The failures in that case mostly involve rudders, mast and keel.

Banque Populaire, Imoca foiler of Armel Le Cleach winner, with record, of the 2016-2017 Vendée.

In 2016 there were 6 foilers at the start, two did not arrive (percentage thus less than 50%) Banque Populaire and Hugo Boss finished on the first steps of the podium, with records of the race (Banque Populaire) and of miles in 24 hours (Hugo Boss, 535, which sailed for more than half a lap of the world without a foil due to a collision with a UFO). Then we cannot fail to point out that the last two Transat Jacques Vabre were won by foilers (Pedote’s former boat in 2017 and Apivia in 2019, and the result would be the same at the Route du Rhum as well if Alex Thomson had not fallen asleep 10 miles from the finish line going to the rocks.

Ruyant’s foil-less Imoca split on deck, and more, during the 2016-2017 edition

In the current edition there are only 3 withdrawals at the moment, and they involve only foilers. While waiting for clearer statistics at the end of the race, it should be noted, however, that Charal had a technical problem, Linkedout is without a foil, Hugo Boss and PRB have been discussed extensively, and Occitaine, on the other hand, had problems with the stays not directly reconnected to the work of the appendages. Certainly the new foilers have made a definite leap forward in terms of material stress and the difficulty for engineers to predict loads. But serious accidents at the Vendée Globe (boats splitting, capsizing, shattered masts, crumbling rudders, you name it) have always been a reality.

Jean Le Cam’s foil-less Imoca capsized on approach to Cape Horn in 2008 after losing her keel.

Jean Le Cam, who rescued Escoffier, scuffed in 2008 just before Cape Horn because his boat, without a foil of course, lost its keel. Similar fate befell Javier Sanso in 2013, while Thomas Ruyant in 2017 saw his boat split open and only much luck allowed him to bring it to good harbor without sinking. We mention only these otherwise the list would be very long.

Samantha Davies in a sad selfie after dismasting at the 2012 Vendée Globe with an older generation Imoca. Today the Brit runs with a foiler.

When we talk about the Vendée Globe we have to think of this race as if it were a Paris-Dakar. Would we be surprised if at a Dakar there were technical problems with the vehicles in the race? I think not. Would we ask for slower cars or engines? Perhaps.

Ultimately, the crux of the matter could be found in the rules. If the Imoca class leaves a “hole” in the box rules, i.e., the size of the foils that is free (Imoca class rule E.4), which allows designers to dare, they will. After all, if one decides never to put one’s safety at risk, the Vendée Globe is certainly not the most suitable event. Even in their fear, and caution, even the most cautious skippers know that they are taking part in an event where danger, risk, is part of the game. In fact, Giancarlo Pedote knows it well, and it is precisely because he is aware of how much this regatta can put his safety at risk that he is being very cautious, and he is right to do so if that is his state of mind and his goal inside this edition. No one can judge him for this.

As has been done with masts and keels (now one design), it is presumable that the Imoca class will in the future put their hands in the rulebook to limit the size of foils in some way. We are in a transition phase. The first foilers of 2016, while initially having some tightness problems, were described as reliable overall.

Hugo Boss was the first to show how advantageous large foils could be for speed averages, and so we came to the extremes of this edition with huge foils. We will probably see a middle ground between these two generations in the future. Foil or no foil, as long as the Vendée Globe is a regatta there will be someone who wants to win it. Long live then the Vendée Globe, and its skippers, a source of inspiration and debate for us all.

Mauro Giuffrè

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