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Maintaining the Competitive Advantage

© Mark Lloyd/Alea

But in terms of playing their cards close to their chests and keeping information within a closed environment for as long as possible, there are lots of different approaches. In 2008, one design group were responsible for eight different new boats and within that design office there were strict non-disclosure agreements. This time, for the 2020 Vendée Globe, there are four different studios responsible for eight new boats. And so, again, there needs to be a level of secrecy as each team seeks to maintain its own innovations and ideas, at least until the boats are launched.

If it is for the teams to manage their own information and decide what and when they reveal to the public. In design studios and in the build facilities, there are strict rules. "We sign confidentiality clauses," says Michel Ollivier, assistant industrial director at boat builders CDK. "The hangars are closed, and each team has its space. Our role is limited to following the exact specifications given to us. We make sure everyone follows the rules. But overall, it's still pretty low key. This is not like industrial espionage as you might get in the America's Cup. We are involved with reliable people. Beyond that, it is down to the character of the sailors themselves. Some are more worried than others about their own secrets. “

Guillaume Verdier, architect of two projects for 2020 says: "If the idea comes from the team, it will stay in their own domain. On the other hand I sometimes propose the same innovations to different teams. They are free to choose whether to take them or not. For example Initiative Coeur’s foils are from a study I did for the Volvo. We may find them on other boats.” 

But navigating such waters is not always easy, Verdier adds. "It's sometimes uncomfortable, not very pleasant. But no team has the means, like in the Cup, to employ an architect on a purely exclusive basis.”

Innovation versus reliability
“This time the 2020 campaign is more about reliability than innovation, but in 2012 and 2016 it was different. We were designing a machine to win the Vendée Globe,” the technical director of Banque Populaire’s sailing projects Ronan Lucas explains. “When we were creating a project with the aim of winning, we were very closely observed and so we had to be careful. But in fact, the best way is just to be one step ahead. In 2016, when we were doing Armel Le Cléac’h’s IMOCA 60, we made extensive tests on foils on a Mini before we settled on the design we would take forward to the IMOCA. We had a clear idea of what we wanted to do, because we wanted a reliable boat. And in any case the best formula is always a compromise between performance and reliability.”

The fruits of the experience
But for Ronan Lucas, having a well conceived boat is never enough: "It is also necessary to be able to help the boat evolve from what we learn out on the water while training or racing. In the Banque Populaire team, we have always tried to have our boat at least a year and a half before the start. Each experience, whether a success or failure, helps us to evolve and improve the boat to be the best it can be on start day."

It is the same story for Pierre-François Dargnies, the technical director of the Charal team: "We made the choice to build very early. And all the time when there is design and the actual building going on, we made extra sure that no information filtered out from our own domain. We wanted to maintain the privacy, especially around the foils. We benefited from Jérémie's experience, his feedback from the last Vendée Globe with the boat which had foils added. This time it was completely different since we designed the boat from the outset to be a foiler."

To launch a new boat first inherently means revealing early to the competition. Dargnies responds,  "From the moment Charal left the yard the boat was scrutinized from every angle. It was particularly keenly observed in the build up to the Route du Rhum. But that was our choice to sail early, so we could gather data and evolve. We have already been able to identify a lot of defects which are down to the newness of the boat. We are already working on version 2 of our foils. The one key advantage that other teams cannot catch up with is the number of miles sailed.”

This 2020 edition is already exciting. In 2008, 2012 and 2016, the teams generally worked from a base model. Some architectural firms felt it better to be conservative, as for them it was important not to take risks. This time, the game has opened up and the unknown new territory is the good management of foils. Will one team gain a big advantage this time?  We will have to wait and see….

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