So could we see a boat which is much more adapted to, or indeed built specifically for a woman skipper? The 1993 winner Alain Gautier worked closely with Ellen MacArthur for the 2000-2001 race and is now project manager for Isabelle Joschke and Quentin Lucet, naval architect at VPLP, here ponder a few future ideas for female orientated boats.
Since the first Vendée Globe in 1989 there are only seven women who have taken part. And it was not until the third edition that the pioneers Isabelle Autissier and Catherine Chabaud took on the race for the first time. The proportion of women participating in ocean racing has historically remained very low, but in saying that, of the magnificent seven who have raced the Vendée Globe, four have finished in the top six overall.
With them in mind, but more particularly looking to the future and the growing band of women looking to start the 2020 race, is it possible to design and/or configure a boat which is adapted and more attuned to the womens' physical power and needs, a 60 footer which will make life and work on board more effective and so render them even more competitive?
Gautier, winner of the Vendée Globe 1993 and the race's security consultant on the last editions has been closely involved with women's projects before. Before he was with Ellen MacArthur, now he is working with Isabelle Joschke. They are both realtively small women who who have a grit, skill and determination which - you could say - is inversely proportional to their size.
"For the 2000-2001 campaign, we designed the boat specifically for Ellen," Gautier recalls. " Everything had been designed for her in terms of deck hardware and ergonomics: the height of the winches, their positioning, was related to the length of her arms and because she is less than 1m 55cms tall. We had worked on all the problems of friction (for example turning blocks) and so looking to avoid energy losses, while also making the boat as easy as possible. Kingfisher was never designed as the most powerful boat, it was a little narrower than the others and it was heavier because we really focused on reliability."
A close second in 2001 behind winner Michel Desjoyeaux, La Petite Anglaise won over hearts and minds of a global audience and Ellen's remains the best performance to date.
"But that was in 2000-2001 and times have changed." cautions Gautier, "The level has gone up with each and every edition. The boats are driven closer to their maximum potential for more of the time and the top end speeds are higher. A boat designed for a woman who wants to win the Vendée Globe would have to be as efficient as is possible. You cannot now sacrifice too much in the pursuit of making things slightly easier or more practical. We need to be thinking much more of adjusments and clever adaptations."
And that is a belief that Quentin Lucet, Imoca specialist at VPLP subscribes to
"In terms of the structure or indeed the shape of the boat, being femal has no impact. Size dictates speed. But for me girls have the same ability to go fast as boys, the same ability to unplug the brain."
Since 2005 Lucet has been involved in the design and launch of twelve Imoca 60 footers at from the Vannes based design company, including the winners of the last two Vendée Globe races. Each time the approach of the architects is the same.
"Regardless of whether it's a man or a woman we always aim to design a boat for the person depending on their history, their way of sailing, their own size and strength. Some will compromise on comfort to pursue more extreme philosophies and saving weight. Others are less inclined to follow this more extreme route. This trade off arises whether it's for a man or a woman. So, assuming that a sailor is less physically strong, we will have a look more closely at the need to move heavy moving elements. For example: how to get the sails out on to the deck more easily. We could make a larger hatch, a path that prevents the sails being forced around more acute angles, or even a solution to hoist the sail directly from the sail stowage space." Lucet outlines, "You could even envisage a stowage area which was not in the bottom of the boat for example, perhaps a protected area on deck? not having to go out or return the sails in the cargo hold by arranging a protected storage area on the bridge. Being able to economise on movement and save energy is always important to the sailor, no matter the sex."
Stacking, a backbreaking issue.
One of the 2020 hopefuls Alexia Barrier has been looking closely at the ergonomics and biomechanics of the hard, heavy work on board, not least stacking.
"Since I started out in the Mini Transat I have been working with a guy who is a specialist in biomechanics, someone who works in F1 motor racing and an expert on posture. We had thought, for example that I could attach myself to the winch more so I can concentrate on the power of my arms. Looking at all these little areas, such as adjusting the dimensions of the coffee grinder pedestal winch to fit my size or working on clever solutions for stacking, moving 400 kilos from one side to the other, is a massive physical effort."
"That seems to be one of the hardest things for women." says Gautier.
Lucet concludes, "Sled or trolley type systems do exist but always you have to factor in the limitations imposed by the structure of the boat and how it is built (the location of bulkheads and semi bulkheads, ring frames and so on). And of course adding this type of mechanical advantage has a cost, a trade off, in terms of added weight. So, are you ready to cost yourself another 50kgs to save yourself physically? It's a difficult choice.
Will 2020 be a good year for the girls ?
Absent from Les Sables d'Olonne in 2016 women could return in force in 2020. The British soloist Samantha Davies looks set for her third participation. We can reasonably hope that there will be more girls joining her. To this day however no female contenders seems to be able to commission a new design, new build boat. As yet there is no female skipper been granted the blank page project on which to draw the foils for a 'female' boat of the latest generation.
"And that's a pity because you do not win the Vendée Globe on sheer physical strength." Alain Gautier finishes. "And I'm convinced that a woman could win this race. "
Women in the Vendée Globe:
Catherine Chabaud: 6th
Isabelle Autissier. Co-founder of the Imoca class. Finished hors course, 4 days after the winner, after a technical stop in South Africa.
"She had the means to win," says Alain Gautier.
Ellen MacArthur: 2nd
Catherine Chabaud: abandoned after dismasting.
Anne Liardet: 11th
Karen Leibovici: 13th
Samantha Davies: 4th
Dee Caffari: 6th
Samantha Davies: abandoned after dismasting.
* 2020 women's projects
- Samantha Davies (GBR): project under way
- Isabelle Joscke (FRA), Alexia Barrier (FRA): looking for partners or complementary funding
- Expressed interest: Anna Corbella (ESP) and Justine Mettraux (SUI).