Some of the damage we saw at the Vendée Globe finish was simply staggering, yet this edition was also remarkable for its small number of retirements. Many boats suffered major issues, yet kept racing until the very end. The first boat home, Charlie Dalin’s Apivia, gave a foretaste. We knew he’d damaged the port foil system south of Australia, but few were prepared for the sight of his boat when he approached the finish, showing the foil supported by improvised stays Dalin had needed to repeatedly adjust and maintain for 13,000 miles and 44 days.
As Dalin crossed the line, 90 miles to the west Boris Herrmann was dealing with a broken shroud after the bottom splice tore open in his collision with a trawler. Next home after Dalin was Louis Burton, who told us the hardest thing for him had been the “constant DIY on the boat.” Burton was dogged by pilot and electronic problems, rigging and halyard issues, loss of the watermaker, and even damage caused by a fire.
These three boats were not particularly unlucky – almost every boat that reached the finish had to overcome major technical problems at some point. But what’s remarkable about many of the repairs is they were not short-term get-you-home lash-ups – they allowed the boat to be pushed in full race mode for tens of thousands of miles. We spoke to the skippers to find out what ocean cruising sailors could learn from the race.
SOLVE PROBLEMS BEFORE YOU GO
The Vendée skippers’ extraordinary ability to solve technical problems is the outcome of a process that starts early in each campaign. Everyone I spoke to highlighted the extent to which preparation has improved across the fleet over the past few editions, including among the low-budget teams. At the top level, teams are also continuously finding better ways to approach tasks.
Sam Davies has sailed IMOCAs for a decade and a half and seen these changes first-hand. Her team now uses thermal imaging to help identify delamination in structures. This recently available technique creates a complete picture of the structure and therefore may identify problems missed by ultrasound, which can only test at discrete points.
Every new piece of equipment bought for Initiatives Coeur gets a full NDT (non-destructive testing) analysis before being fitted. This establishes a baseline against which any subsequent changes can be measured. For instance, the boat had a new rig before the Vendée Globe, but even the very best mouldings have some flaws. This is not an issue providing they are within the limits set by structural engineers, but the initial NDT testing means that, when the spars are checked at the end of the race, it’s possible to differentiate between those initial flaws and any new damage.
Despite this level of prep it’s easy for small, but important, items to slip though the net. Davies broke a forestay pin due to fatigue failure. “I can’t believe we didn’t pick up on that,” she told me. “That pin is part of a furler which goes back to the manufacturer to be serviced. It’s a piece that’s holding up the rig, but we’re not X-raying it ourselves.”
One example of preparation that’s standard practice in long-distance racing, but often omitted by cruising yachts preparing for lengthy voyages, is to add Dyneema chafe jackets to halyards to protect against damage at sheaves. The difference this makes is immense, thanks to the slippery nature of Dyneema, and I’ve personally finished transatlantic races with spinnaker halyards that look almost new after adding them.
MID - RACE CHECKS
Knowing your boat really, really well is key to both reducing the risk of damage and identifying the best repair solutions. Once at sea, checks and inspections are the most vital element in avoiding breakages and equipment failure. A minimum is a daily check around the boat, inside and out, including examining the rig with binoculars. Any item that’s a cause for concern gets more constant monitoring. Creative thinking can help in this context. After an exploding running backstay block nearly put an end to her race, Alexia Barrier hoisted a GoPro camera up her mast to check for damage, avoiding the need to climb a potentially compromised rig herself.
Miranda Merron is an ardent fan of maintaining a scrupulously clean boat, with dry bilges and machinery spaces. To make it easier to check for damage to the carbon structure she painted key areas white, so cracks can be seen easily at an early stage. She also recommends a stripe of white paint across nuts, washers and a reference mark on the boat. That way you can see at a glance whether or not the nut has moved. But even then she was caught out by the fastenings for the main pilot ram loosening. Fortunately she spotted the issue before it became a serious problem, but subsequently took an Allen key on daily checks to physically confirm the tightness of bolts holding mission critical equipment.
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