A zero risk race round the world does not and never will exist, but these steps have substantially reduced the known risks during the history of the solo non stop around the world race.
Winner of the 1992 Vendée Globe and a young, fresh faced pioneer of the first edition Alain Gautier is now project manager for Isabelle Joschke. He was the safety director for the Vendée Globe from 2004 to 2016. He vividly recalls the very early days of the race:
“ At best in these days the rules governing design, stability and buoyancy of the boats were sketchy. In the case of a man overboard, a liferaft was supposed to launch and inflate automatically, but it did not really work. We just had an Argos (positioning) beacon and a distress beacon. We received weather faxes but the information in the big south was sporadic and not at all informative. We communicated with land by SSB (Single Sideband radio), but that did not always work.”
These basic precautions were the best available at the time for a single-handed, non-stop round-the-world tour. And with each successive edition improvements were brought into force, usually reflecting advances in technology.
The IMOCA Class brings with it new levels of safety.
The IMOCA Class was born in 1991 as an initiative of the skippers like Auguin, Autissier, Gautier, Van den Heede. The design rules and regulations which defined the classes significantly contributed to the safety of the skippers. The epic rescues of Tony Bullimore, Thierry Dubois and Raphaël Dinelli after their capsizes and the loss of Gerry Roufs in the 1996/1997 edition shocked the sailing world into making big, required changes.
The monohulls have to fulfil strict self righting and stability tests (at 90 degrees). The power of the boats is limited to reduce the risks and rules and regulations governing the strength and integrity construction are established by the IMOCA class.
The shapes of the decks and roofs are revised to facilitate the self righting of a capsized boat. The introduction of canting keels from 1996 onwards also contributes to stability. And, more recently, since 2013, the adoption of standardized keels and masts has brought significantly improved reliability. And at the same time, the ongoing improvements of intelligent autopilots as well as adopting more sheltered, protected sailing positions, means sailors can race in stronger conditions while no longer exposed to the full force of the elements.
"The sailors are really now racing the boats in increasingly muscular conditions," said Jacques Caraës, sailor and race director of the Vendée Globe since 2016.
Satellites changed everything
Along with the yacht design and technology advances, the revolution in satellite communications has made the biggest contribution to the improvements in safety and security.
"The satellite has changed everything. This is the most important progress of the last 20 years "says Caraës.
The iridium phone - and more specifically the data sent via the satellite - allows us to communicate instantly with a boat wherever it is on the globe, even if it is upside down. For the Vendée Globe 2020, each boat will be equipped with three telephones of this type. All boats are tracked constantly around the world with their position updated for Race Direction every five minutes
"If we observe a speed or course which concerns us we immediately call the boat”, explains the race director. “ Our communication with the teams has evolved a lot. It is now much more of a two way process They alert us to damage, even minor, because in certain situations, we know that there may be a chain reaction ".
As in most big IMOCA races now the Race Direction team also set up a private website, accessible to rescue authorities around the globe, including CROSS (Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue) and MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers).This site is fully updated with all essential information about the boats and the skippers, everything from images of the boat from all angles and equipment carried on board and all the skippers personal details including images of him/her and his or her medical history.
Weather is more accurately forecast
Thanks to the satellite (images), but also because of the much greater sophistication of the forecasting algorithms and computing power, weather forecasting is much more accessible, accurate and reliable.
"It has improved hugely," says Alain Gautier, who just knew the endless bleak and unpredictable miles of the Big South during the first editions. Today all of the globe is covered. The race management can therefore issue wind warnings (beyond 35 knots) complemented by predicted wave height forecasts. And on their own part sailors have their own weather prediction and routing software that can help interpret the data and choose the fastest and safest route through the prevailing weather systems. So this is a performance facility as well as a security measure.
Avoid ice, stay within reach.
Another positive facet of satellite imagery is the detection of drifting ice, which is a real danger for boats traveling at high speeds around Antarctica. The stories and images of sailors passing icebergs and slaloming between bergs is the stuff of race legend, but it does not happen now. It has long since been proven to be too dangerous. We remember the images of Jean Le Cam in 2004. That was a time when the course was "free", still leaving the option of going far to the south.
Today, the course is delimited by an Antarctic Exclusion Zone, a virtual "wall" of 72 points positioned every 5 degrees of longitude. These points may be moved during the course depending on the position ice identified by the CLS (satellite location collection) partner.
If this "security barrier" was once a topic for debate with no escape to the south in case of bad weather it also keeps the solo skippers within reasonable reach of rescue.
Especially in the North Atlantic in particular the threat is from maritime traffic – cargo ships of all sizes and fishermen. In the last ten years AIS (automatic ship identification system) as well as radat allows ships to identify and detect each other and so prevent collisions. AIS is an effective system but not always infallible as underlined by both Alain Gautier and Jacques Caraës.
"It's a help but in no way a guarantee. The negative effect of the AIS is to keep the skippers out of the cockpit. Despite this device, we unfortunately still have incidents. AIS does not replace visual watch. ".
But at present unpredictable collisions occur with floating objects or marine mammals, causing potentially serious damage (loss of rudders and keels and hull damage). The development of processes to detect these "OFNI" is still a topic being studied at high levels, one on which skippers and specialized companies have been working for some years.
Better equipped, better prepared
On a single-handed round the world race without assistance, the golden rule is that the self sufficiency or autonomy of sailors contributes greatly to their own safety. They are better equipped than 30 years ago: 6 to 7 beacons are carried (positioning and distress) instead of 2 or 3 in the earlyt days
"That is twice more than before and above all they are so much more precise. Today, thanks to these beacons and GPS, we know the position of a boat to within 5 metres "says Guillaume Evrard of Vendée Globe Race Direction.
Better equipped skippers are now also much better prepared. Compulsory safety courses and medical course requirements allow skippers to have practical experience of critical injury care. This year, the IMOCA class has also inaugurated a specific course composed of a theoretical part (sharing of experiences) and practice (diving exercises under the hull of the boat with a mini reserve of air, climb to the mast) to complete World Sailing’s required level of training.
For their part, sailors now prepare themselves better physically and mentally.
The qualification system has also been made much more rigorous over the years and the IMOCA monohulls are being looked after by squads of technicians, engineers and specialists.
"In 1989, I put my boat in the water at the end of August for a start in November, after only 2000 miles of qualification, that is just unthinkable today! "Remembers Alain Gautier.
"With qualification systems and selection governed now by the number of miles it all raises the levels of safety.” agrees Jacques Caraës. The sailors are dedicated and professional.
And on the pontoons of Les Sables d'Olonne, we no longer see toolboxes next to the boats on start day. The technical teams are employed to make sure the boats are ready and reliable.
© Yvan Zedda / Défi AzimutSpeed: a guarantee of security?
Boats have become much faster. In 1990, the winner Titouan Lamazou took 109 days and 8 hours to complete his circumnavigation. In 2017 Armel Le Cléac'h won in just over 74 days. In simple terms less time on the water means less opportunity for accidents. The 60-foot IMOCAs are better able to outrun weather systems and utilise rather than fight stormy conditions. They suffer less than before. But speed now means a tough, violent life on board, the shocks are more violent. Hence the risk of injury increases. The advent of foils has further increased the shocks to the skipper.
No risk does not exist
But risks remain part and parcel of the race, the essence is to learn and develop positive outcomes from the incidents which have happened in recent editions. The serious fractures of Yann Eliès, the capsizing of Jean Le Cam, the stranding of Bernard Stamm, the large number of dismastings in 2008; collisions with fishermen in 2012; structural problems, keel pins and rudders in 2016 are recent examples.
"Do not kid yourself with romantic notions. When we take to the sea, just like the mountains we are facing up to the raw elements, we expose ourselves to danger. Zero risk does not exist "warns Alain Gautier. "It's still a race round the world. It's not nothing. It requires huge commitment, "insists Jacques Caraës.
Statistics still say that just over 47% of skippers have abandoned when the numbers on all editions are run. Some editions have far exceeded this figure. Despite all the measures and initiatives the race remains an extraordinary challenge.
The rules and regulations include
1 The texts of the OMI and ONU which govern fishing and maritime traffic, most notably COLAS (SAFETY OF LIFE AT SEA) conventions set up after the Titanic was lost.
2 Offshore Special Regs of World Sailing
3 IMOCA Class Rules and Regs which may modify or include derivations of the OSR
4 The Notice of Race of the Vendée Globe.