The biggest enemy of the skippers of the fleet in the 7th edition of the Vendée Globe is the things that they cannot see and cannot predict. On some level the weather is known. The skippers receive weather information every four hours and can anticipate how they will have to adapt the boat to manage the conditions.
However, the unknown entities that inhabit the oceans are whales, containers and rogue waves. Whales can hear the propellers of motorised boats and so move out of their way but they cannot hear the 60ft grand prix racing yachts as they silently rocket through that water at 20-30 knots and therefore don’t move to avoid their path. Of course, it is a tragedy when a sailing yacht at speed hits a whale because invariably it is the whale that ends up worse off.
“It is always regrettable when a boat hits a whale. The ocean is the whale’s home. I understand that they live in the ocean and there is nothing that we can do but, for me, containers are a real problem. There is no legislation about containers. They shouldn’t be there but there is no rules to prevent them being there. I really don’t like them.” Said 2004 Vendée Globe winner, Vincent Riou.
The containers are large metal boxes and are sized anywhere between 20ft to 45 ft long and 8 ft high. They are used by merchant shipping companies to transport goods across the oceans on very large ships. Occasionally, if the ship is caught in very bad weather the containers are lost at sea and are never recovered. Instead they float ad infinitum in the water. They present an enormous risk to the skippers and boats because to sail into a 40ft container at 20 plus knots could cause serious damage.
Larger ships have sonar devices that enable them to track 200 metres in front of their bow and so can be used to warn the captain of any potential collision.
According to Vincent Riou, sonar is not a practical solution for the 60 ft yachts in the Vendée Globe sailing fleet.
“We did some research with an institute in France on a sonar system but it is not practical because it is half the weight of the whole boat and it uses lots of power. It needs a lot of energy and the boat is very fast and so to use a sonar to predict 200m ahead of the boat when you are travelling at 20 knots you need a very powerful system and it’s impossible to find one that is not too heavy. You have to be realistic these kind of devices are so impractical we are not going to install them and so we can’t even consider them. It’s too heavy and it’s uses too much power.”
The other hidden danger that the skippers face is rogue waves. These are enormous waves that can hit the boat side on and smash through the deck like a sledgehammer.
“I know the places where there are going to be big waves. I am never surprised. I know the areas where the rogue waves are. You can’t have rogue waves anywhere. For me the South of South Africa is one the most dangerous places to cross where rogue waves are prevalent just south of Cape Town, below South Africa.”
Rogue waves are caused by weather systems outside of the course of the skipper. Severe weather systems impact the sea state and create a ripple effect where large rogue waves can be formed and take a skipper by surprise.
Large weather systems, like the recently dubbed ‘Frankenstorm’ which is culminating on the Eastern Seaboard, in the USA, at the moment.
“There could be repercussions in the oceans following the predicted tropical storm because following a tropical storm in the USA today four days later it starts to cross the Atlantic. We don’t know what it will do maybe we will just see a little wind and rain but we don’t know yet.” Said Vincent Riou.
The dangers of the Vendée Globe also known as ‘the Everest of the seas’ means that our intrepid skippers must always be prepared to expect the unexpected.