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Will it Be Just 60 Days for Flying New IMOCA 60s in Vendee Globe Circuit?

7th November 2020
Up, up and away….Jeremy Bayou's Charal was one of the first of the latest generation of IMOCA 60s to be launched, thereby avoiding many of the production delays which the pandemic caused for campaigns on a later time-scale. Having won the Vendee Artique Race in July, Charal is seen as a leading contender in the 24,000 mile Vendee Globe Race, which starts tomorrow at Les Sables d'Olonne Up, up and away….Jeremy Bayou's Charal was one of the first of the latest generation of IMOCA 60s to be launched, thereby avoiding many of the production delays which the pandemic caused for campaigns on a later time-scale. Having won the Vendee Artique Race in July, Charal is seen as a leading contender in the 24,000 mile Vendee Globe Race, which starts tomorrow at Les Sables d'Olonne Credit: B Gergaud

Make no splash, leave no trace, tame the turbulence, and THEN JUST FLY…..That's the thinking which underlines the very latest manifestations of the IMOCA 60, which are expected to lead the fleet of 33 sailing machines in the 24,296 miles Vendee Globe 2020 once they've got themselves clear of tomorrow's start of the Races of Races off Les Sables d'Olonne.

It's a quadrennial race in which - since its insouciant introduction in 1989 with just 13 boats - there has been a combined completion rate of only 53% of starters getting back to the finish. Yet knowing what they have been heading for in the past - with the first serious drubbing often experienced as they try to get out of the Bay of Biscay in November weather less than a day on their way – perhaps we should completely re-think that, and say it's little short of miraculous that as many as 53% of the lone skippers have made it all the way round south of the Great Capes and through everything that five oceans can throw at them.

The course of the Vendee GlobeThe course of the Vendee Globe, which sees its biggest fleet start tomorrow. The shaded area along the foot of the map indicates the big winds of the Roaring Forties and the "Furious Fifties".

They may be lone skippers, but while it all started as something of a leap into the dark, it has so captured public imagination - with more than 2 million signed up followers, and counting rapidly – that it is now big business, with endless scope for imaginative advertising and promotions. The top stars are backed by so many technical specialists that it's an industry in itself which is so focused yet complex that to clarify it all, many observers are simply wondering if the 2016-2017 record of 74 days and 3 hours set by winner Armel le Cleac'h in Banque Populaire can be brought below 70 or even 60 days, while in theory 50 days is within the realms of possibility.

Thus although there'll be veteran boats starting tomorrow which have done several circuits and are hoping – by enabling their skippers to put in a competent performance – to provide the stepping stone to new state-of-the-art boat for 2024, inevitably most attention will focus on the boats with the very latest thinking, where the R & D and design and build teams have had to tread a careful line between having he time available to test their new boat thoroughly, while not being so early on the scene that other teams can draw on their most novel ideas for use in their own slightly later new boats.

new-generation Charal revealed that the IMOCA 60 concept had made a significant design advanceThe appearance of the new-generation Charal revealed that the IMOCA 60 concept had made a significant design advance

The latest machines aren't really boats as most of us know them. For if you're someone whose dreamship is a fine looking vessel with a real bone in her teeth when she's making best speed, please look elsewhere. Conspicuous bow-waves are considered very bad news indeed in an IMOCA 60, as excessive bubbling foam and white water is evidence the boat is being unnecessarily slowed. So too is a roaring quarter-wave, while as for a reassuring gunwhale with – God forbid –anything remotely resembling a bulwark around anything resembling a deck up forward, forget that too.

The latest boats are more like torpedoes which go through the water with minimum fuss, while above sea level the entire design is aimed at providing minimum obstruction to sheeting spray which in its power is definitely like the sea poet's whetted knife, for now it would give your face an almost instant exfoliation job for which you'd pay through the nose – if you still had one –in a cosmetic clinic.

All this is further compounded by the development of foils, which have leapt several generations since the last race just four years ago. In Ireland our experience of foils in action has come almost entirely from the Figaro 3s, for there were times when Pam Lee and Cat Hunt were undoubtedly being helped on their way by the foils on the Figaro 3 Iarracht Maigeanta with which they successfully established a new two-handed Round Ireland last month.

For sure, the hull was being lifted enough to provide more speed potential, but those Figaro 3 foils are very conservative, for even by the time they'd been demonstrated in use, some of the more off-the-wall Minitransat boats had developed foils which regularly lifted the hull comfortably clear of the water.

Minitransat boat Sea-Air in 2017 was demonstrating prototype foils The Minitransat boat Sea-Air in 2017 was demonstrating prototype foils which successfully lifted the hull completely clear of the water

By contrast, as this video painfully reveals, the foils on the Figaro 3 seem to provide a performance which is reminiscent of a farmyard hen trying to fly:

Even four years ago, some of the Vendee Globe IMOCA 60s were at a much more advanced stage than this. But everyone was understandably nervous about becoming reliant on one relatively small carbon foil trying - in effect - to hold an entire 60ft boat aloft with only a tiny bit of assistance from the lee rudder, and the drawbacks in this were underlined when Alex Thomson in what was then the latest Hugo Boss broke one of his foils relatively early in the race, and was reckoned to have done very well indeed to have taken second place with just one-and-a-half foils.

But now for 2020 there's been a quantum leap in foil development and their relative importance, with the frontline boats using foils which are exerting three times the lift of the most advanced foils of 2016. Thus we're becoming accustomed to seeing vids of IMOCA 60s flying along with the hull entirely clear of the water, finely balanced on one seemingly slim foil in a miraculous way which some might say is reminiscent of Melania Trump advancing in stately style in skinny jeans and seven-inch heels………

Watching an IMOCA 60 get up on the foils is akin to observing a swan taking offWatching an IMOCA 60 get up on the foils is akin to observing a swan taking off. It takes time, and there seems to be so much effort involved that it can't possibly succeed… 

IMOCA 60 get up on the foils…..but then it happens, and all is graceful flight

Be that as it may, the speeds which are now regularly possible means that protection from the razor-like spray and the waves sweeping as unhindered as possible over the boat has become such an essential for the lone sailors that Alex Thomson (he's one of ours, he spent some childhood years in Crosshaven) is now more or less completely enclosed in the latest Hugo Boss - he has become "him indoors".

But it would be stretching it a bit to say that this is deck saloon sailing. Yet all his key controls and main vision forward are inside at the forward end of this low-slung, streamlined coachroof, to which the regular deck access is through a small aft-sloping hatchway and smaller doorway with the mainsheet track across between them, after of which - where other boats might have a rudimentary cockpit - the only concession to a cockpit is a slight dip in the deck right aft to provide a foot-rest when he does need to be a hands-on helmsman.

Hugo Boss from astern. With all controls within the cabin podHugo Boss from astern. With all controls within the cabin pod, the cockpit is no more than a slight dip in the deck right aft…….

the sole access hatch requires considerable agility……while the sole access hatch requires considerable agility, and is a whole world away from the traditional user-friendly companionway of a proper cruising yacht

With the speeds which these boats attain, air turbulence along the deck is an increasingly significantly factor, and in order to minimise this, the mainboom is slung as low as possible, such that it's reckoned the next-generation IMOCA 60s will follow the current crop of America's Cup boats in having a deck-sweeping gaiter under the mainsail in order to complete the end-plate airflow-smoothing effect.

All of which means that anywhere outside the relative safety of the control pod is a hazard zone, so any excursions on what passes for a deck are something to be avoided if at all possible. Thus the preparatory work in making the rigs fail-safe has been prodigious, and the programme for deck action, should the sailor have to go out there, has also been carefully thought through, and meticulously trained up.

Alex Thomson in Hugo Boss's "deck saloon", with all sail controls to hand under coverBusy day in the office. Alex Thomson in Hugo Boss's "deck saloon", with all sail controls to hand under cover

When we look at the numbers in this pillar event's relatively short history, it's fascinating to put it in the context of the global socio-political situation of the time. The countdown to a realistic Vendee Globe challenge is a minimum of two to three years - assuming you're starting with personnel who are already well experienced in the event - so we see that while tomorrow's race has the largest turnout so far, the previous biggest turnout was 30 boats in 2008.

The planning towards each campaign in that would have been well under way by 2006-2007, when the world economy thought it was booming. But when the race actually started, many economic setups ashore had already fallen off a cliff, yet the race had enough inbuilt oomph not only to take place, but to give everyone a very welcome distraction from the global financial disaster.

Participation history:

  • 1989-90: 13 boats at the start
  • 1992-93: 15 boats
  • 1996-97: 15 boats
  • 2000-01: 24 boats
  • 2004-05: 20 boats
  • 2008-2009: 30 boats
  • 2012-2013: 20 boats
  • 2016-2017: 29 boats
  • 2020-2021: 33 boats

So now we come to November 2020 with its new set of acute world problems, yet 33 boats and their skippers and support teams in Les Sables d'Olonne have gallantly come through total Vendee Globe Village COVID lockdown in order to start tomorrow in an event where the campaigns were initially being planned in days of relative serenity and modest though real economic growth.

But now the race is going off as a vitally-needed source of absorbing interest at a time when much of the pandemic-ridden world has seen economic collapse and driven itself semi-bonkers by trying to imagine that video games are real life, and that Zoom conferences are a form of socialising.

Oh for sure, we'll be following on a Race Tracker which could seem at times like a video game were it not for the reality that we know is out there on the oceans of the world. And with this varied fleet, there is going to be a stream of remarkable and very real human stories:


  • Jérémie BEYOU : CHARAL
  • Charlie DALIN : APIVIA
  • Sébastien DESTREMAU : MERCI
  • Clément GIRAUD :
  • Isabelle JOSCHKE : MACSF
  • Jean LE CAM : YES WE CAM !
  • Sébastien SIMON : ARKEA – PAPREC
  • Maxime SOREL : V and B – MAYENNE

We'll get to know many of them much better in the days and weeks ahead, but who are familiar already?

Fifth from the top is Jeremy Bayou, whose Charal has been in commission for just long enough to give every confidence, though the more gloomy observers reckoned he was starting to show his hand too early, and others would be scouting for ideas. But then the pandemic started its remorseless spread, and other finely-timed campaigns started to slip in their schedules as specialist manufacturers had to go into lockdown. Suddenly the Charal campaign was starting to look very sensible, even if the cancellation of keenly anticipated trial events upset training schedules.

Finally, in some desperation the Vendee organisers arranged a COVID-free race to the Arctic and back in July which provided some comparative performance figures to go on, and while – as discussed in our Sailing on Saturday last week on Marcus Hutchinson and Thomas Ruyant with LinkedOut – it was LinkedOut which led at the turning point on the Arctic Circle, at the finish it was Charal first 50 minutes ahead of LinkedOut's near-sister Apivia (Charlie Dalin) with LinkedOut 20 minutes further astern.

In September LinkedOut took delivery of a new but very-delayed set of foils from pandemic-plagued manufacturers Persico in Italy, and the word is that their performance has proven very satisfactory indeed. But of course, that is performance as rated against a set of their own figures, rather than in competition with other boats.

And therein lies the wicked special attraction of this year's Vendee Globe Race. The top boats may well represent a significant design and technical advance on the frontline boats of 2016. But in the end, guessing who'll do best is based on past showings and reports of speed figures based on isolated individual sailing rather then relative performance during 2020 against other boats in a proper racing situation.

Charlie Dalin's Apivia is a near sister of Thomas Ruyant's LinkeOutCharlie Dalin's Apivia is a near sister of Thomas Ruyant's LinkedOut, and took second in the Vendee Artique race.

Thus inevitably Alex Thomson – with five participations including a third and second in the most recent editions, plus a massive budget – finds himself in the tense-making situation of being the pundits' favourite. But in a challenge of this scale and duration, it's really anybody's bet among several boats, and others we'd know of in Ireland who have the benefit of well-resourced campaigns with new or fairly-new generation boats include Jeremy Bayou, Charlie Dalin, Clarisse Cremer, Boris Hermann, Jean le Cam, Thomas Ruyant and Nicolas Troussel.

The latest generation of IMOCA 60s have a significantly improved windward performance over the boats of four years ago, but it may well be they have a weakness of very light airs, so with a probable light air start in southerly winds tomorrow off Les Sables but with fresher sou'westers in the Atlantic to the northwest of Spain, it's expected the newer boats will go as fast as they can to stronger winds further west again, while some of the older boats may take their chance to make a break down the coast of Spain and Portugal.

Either way, with 33 demanding big boats milling around, and with even the most experienced skippers in a state of high tension, simply getting the Vendee Globe 2020 cleanly away tomorrow is a good first marker for an almost impossibly demanding course. Thereafter, the world in all its wonder and challenges is beckoning.

Published in W M Nixon, Vendee Globe
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago