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Vendee Globe- Collisions at sea - Every ocean racer's worst nightmare

by John Curtis on 15 Nov 2012
Kito de Pavant, Groupe Bel Jean-Marie Liot / DPPI / Vendée Globe
Now with two collisions with fishing trawlers in the Vendee Globe, one wonders what should be done about this serious hazard.

As you may have heard by now, a second Vendee Globe boat has collided with a fishing trawler. It was Louis Burton aboard Bureau Vallee. He has not yet retired and reports damage to his shroud. Fortunately he does not have one of those rigs with 'deck spreaders'. These are long poles that stick out at deck height that are used with rotating masts to take load off the pivot point under the mast step. By separating the shroud bases they need less tension in the shrouds for the same stabilizing effects on the mast and they are able to maintain the same forestay tension with less shroud tension. Without this set-up the masts are difficult to rotate or the jib luff sags too much. I'm not an engineer but this is what was explained to me. Personally I would rather not have an extra 10 feet of critical equipment sticking out either side of my boat on a boat that is already 20 feet wide - unless of course I was standing on it in a trapeze harness, but that's an entirely different kind of sailing:)

Let’s hope Louis' boat is not seriously damaged. It is possible that most of the damage was superficial and done only at the base of the shroud and not to the shroud itself. I expect that he has PBO shrouds (synthetic material) and while incredibly strong this material can degrade very quickly if sea water gets inside the cover. if there is any damage to the actual fibres, he would be well advised to turn around, although I have seen some pretty badly damaged PBO with the mast still standing. It’s just that there really is not much of a repair he can make. These PBO shrouds are made to length in a factory with complex equipment. It’s nothing like making up a swaged fitting on a wire shroud. The individual fibres are hair like and one continuous fibre is wound around a ring at each end of the shroud that then becomes the terminal end. The fibres are then carefully covered in several layers of water proof and light proof plastic and abrasion resistant covers.

On the weekend Kito de Pavant had to retire immediately from damage sustained in a collision with another trawler (I hope it was a different one). Very sad day for Kito who has had terrible bad luck with the Vendee Globe over the years.

The big concern seems to be that in both cases the fishing trawlers did not have their AIS units broadcasting. Perhaps they didn't even have them installed. AIS stands for Automatic Identification System. Nearly all Marine VHF's now have this feature on them. It is not expensive technology. Basically it is linked into a GPS and broadcasts your position to other boats in a 20-30 mile radius. It would provide Lat and Long, speed, direction, name of the boat and radio call sign if it has been set up properly. These devices are precisely for avoiding such collisions at sea.

I am not sure of the size of the fishing trawlers, but all boats over 300 tonnes are required to be using these devices when they are offshore. I expect that both trawlers were over 300 tonnes. I know from the offshore racing I have done, we would turn the AIS off if we did not want the other boats to know our position for tactical purposes. We always hoped the other guys would forget to turn theirs off so we would know where they were. This was on boats less that 300 tonnes (thank goodness) and we were keeping a constant watch so the risk of collision was nil. I suspect the fishermen don't want other fisherman to know where the fish are. We are such a competitive species! It’s our best and our worst quality. It can drive us to great heights and to the height of stupidity.

In the Vendee Globe the skippers are required to sail with the AIS on at all times. This is part of the safety protocol. Technically the same laws of the sea that require the 300 tonne and bigger boats to have the AIS on at all times also make singled handed sailing like the Vendee Globe race illegal, so it is hard to complain to any authorities. It’s a catch 22. I have heard that the reason these solo events tend to always start in France is because other governments like in the UK will actually prosecute offenders and will not let such races start from within their borders.

I like the idea of working with the weather information broadcasters used by all ships at sea to obtain weather information. The suggestion has been made that race organizers connect with the agencies who are putting this information out also include information about approaching racing fleets. It seems like an easy first step.

Francois Gabart is still leading but the others are catching him now as he seems to have lighter winds and the wind direction is not favouring as much of a southerly route as it is for those behind him. I understand that Francois is a protégé of Michele Desjoyeaux, having done some double handed sailing with him recently. I will not be surprised if this young guy wins it after being tutored by the Great Man himself. More than anyone else, Desjoyeaux seems to have mastered this art of single handed racing, but I don't think it is rocket science, he just prepared better than everyone else. Apparently he spent months sailing alone in the Southern Ocean just to practice before the last race. Makes perfect sense, but he was the only one who did it.

The only real solution to this collision with trawlers problem is for the Europeans to stop eating fish! Let them Eat Cake, I say!

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