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Kevin Escoffier: Foilers are the future of IMOCA

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 12 Jan 03:30 PST
Kevin Escoffier © Olivier Blanchet

The PRB skipper Kevin Escoffier, who was rescued from the Southern Ocean by Jean Le Cam six weeks ago after his boat suffered catastrophic structural failure, has been thinking about what a future IMOCA might look like for the 2024 Vendée Globe.

The 40-year-old Volvo Ocean Race winner and former Jules Verne record-holder, who is also an accomplished engineer and boat builder, believes there can be no doubt that foils are still the way ahead for a potentially winning campaign on the IMOCA championship and the Vendée Globe.

He told the IMOCA Class: "I think we have to be careful because when you look at this race we have to ask ourselves, what kind of boats are the three leaders? The reason we are a bit disappointed by the performance of the foilers is because we haven't seen the 30-knot speeds that we were expecting".

"But it is still the foilers who are ahead," he added, "even if they have been sailing quietly. When you look at the north Atlantic (on the way south), they had less wind than the daggerboard boats. And even the foilers with issues - like Thomas Ruyant on LinkedOut who has only one foil, and Charlie Dalin who has foil issues with APIVIA - they are still ahead. So we can say what we want, but it is still three foilers that are ahead in the Vendée Globe right now."

Escoffier believes that there will be more work to come on trying to make foils - or the structure of the boat that houses them - more able to withstand collision, so that one-off impacts do not have a major impact on performance over a whole race. This is something he had been working on with his old boat.

"I've always been thinking about this, even with PRB," he said. "When I changed the lower bearing on the foil, I put a shock absorber inside the bearing and a titanium part in order for the foil not to break the hull if I hit something. I've been working a lot on multihulls before monohulls and we have had this kind of issue on the multihulls for a while now, with the same speeds or even higher speeds. We are working on that - when you break a foil it is better not to break the structure of the boat."

When Escoffier looks at this race - a contest in which he was in contention for a podium position - he is already thinking hard about what design choices he might make with a new boat for the 2024 edition. This is likely to come as a result of a new sponsorship package with PRB that Escoffier says he and the company are hoping will feature what he called "an efficient budget compared to performance."

"I have had incredible support from all the staff at PRB and many of them would like this to continue. PRB is a fantastic sponsor and a fantastic firm," declared Kevin. "I am proud of that and have the support of some great people, like Jean-Jacques. I am really lucky to be able to work with people like him."

"Yes, for sure, I'm already imagining what we should do with a new boat in all conditions. I am thinking about sails, about manoeuvres and how to do the inside of the boat. I've always been passionate about boats as well as sailing and designing - it is my life. So yes, I am back on land but I am not on holidays; I am working on my project and I am imagining what I will do with the boat and the big thing is the next Vendée Globe, for sure."

We asked Escoffier about the effects of what happened to him on the Southern Ocean - a terrifying boat break-up that gave him just a few minutes to escape into a liferaft, without even being able to collect his grab-bag (safety bag). Then 11 hours in the raft waiting and hoping he would be found by Le Cam.

The Frenchman - always cheerful and full of energy - says that for a while he did dwell on the rescue, but he has not suffered any adverse effects and his commitment to sailing and racing solo remains as strong as it ever was.

"I still love to sail," he explained. "I just want to go back to the competition and sailing. I don't wake up during the night; I don't dream of breaking the boat during the night. Even when I was sailing with Jean (before he was transferred to a French navy frigate near the Crozet Islands) I was well on his boat. Even in 30 knots of wind, I was happy; I like to be on the boat. There is definitely not any trauma from what I've been though - my head is not built like that."

But Escoffier does admit that there have been times when it has been hard not to wish he was still out there battling his way through the Southern Ocean, making his first solo passage past Cape Horn or contending with the leaders in the south Atlantic. But these moments are becoming less frequent.

"As the time passes since the accident, these moments are becoming shorter and shorter," he said. "I would look at the ranking and think maybe I could be there, but there is no point in thinking too much about that," he said. "I know that I am definitely not in the race any more and there is no point in trying to imagine where I would have been, or where I could be right now, because the story is finished and the story is not like that".

Surveying the race and recent developments, Escoffier says the close competition in the "second division" of boats has been remarkable and it reminds him more of the Volvo Ocean Race than the Vendée Globe.

"We are seeing a great race with a second league that is made up of well-prepared boats that are sailing fast and well," he said. "Usually with the Vendée Globe, after the south, you have two boats out in front and the race is virtually over. This time we can see something that is more like the ranking in an inshore race. It is amazing it have people this close to each other; it is a bit like the Volvo more than a Vendée Globe..."

Escoffier believes Yannick Bestaven has made the best use of the weather available to him and he does not believe the Maître-CoQ IV skipper is in danger of being caught by the two chasing boats, APIVIA and LinkedOut, in the next few days.

"For sure it will come back from behind for a while, but Yannick will also be the first out of the light winds, so we will see in the next few days."

That said, Escoffier also points out that anything could still happen in the Atlantic between now and the finish and whether or not Dalin is able to sail on foils on both tacks could be critical to the outcome.

"This is definitely not finished because the high pressure may come back from behind in the north Atlantic and you may have a big turn and there could be plenty to do," he said. "And we know that in the north Atlantic you may gain a lot of miles quickly, but you may lose a lot of miles quickly, especially with these faster boats."

Escoffier said he was surprised that Dalin chose to go inside the Isla de los Estados immediately after rounding Cape Horn, while a more easterly heading, following Bestaven might have been faster. He again paid tribute to the race leader: "Yannick has been sailing well - he hasn't had any other choice (with his routing) and he has also been quite fast," he said.

Asked to pick out some of the other outstanding performers, Escoffier highlighted Le Cam who, at 61, is continuing to sail a phenomenal race on a very old boat. "It's just amazing what he is doing," said the PRB skipper. He also mentioned Benjamin Dutreux "who is doing a great race" on OMIA-Water Family and Damien Seguin, on Groupe APICIL, who Escoffier believes now has an excellent chance of making the podium in a non-foiling boat.

Escoffier made the point that it is not just the way these three men have sailed the race - the work they did in the build-up was just as important, he argues. "What is great is that these guys worked very hard - Dutreux found money very late and Seguin worked a lot on his boat last year to be able to have a fast boat for the Vendée Globe and he's done an amazing job".

"Jean too worked with his hands on the boat for a year to save weight and change the ballast and everything," he added. "I am impressed by the way they are sailing but we know, with an IMOCA, it is not only sailing; it is about the project and how to do a good project - these guys have done a great job, not only in the race but before it too."

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