When planning an ocean passage, how do you ensure you can keep going no matter what? Rupert Holmes finds out what Vendée Globe Skippers can teach us about mid-ocean repairs
Some of the damage we saw at the Vendée Globe finish was simply staggering, yet this edition was also remarkable for its small number of retirements. Many boats suffered major issues, yet kept racing until the very end thanks to mid-ocean repairs undertaken by many skippers.
The first boat home, Charlie Dalin’s Apivia, gave a foretaste. We knew he’d damaged the port foil system south of Australia, but few were prepared for the sight of his boat when he approached the finish, showing the foil supported by improvised stays Dalin had needed to repeatedly adjust and maintain for 13,000 miles and 44 days.
As Dalin crossed the line, 90 miles to the west Boris Herrmann was dealing with a broken shroud after the bottom splice tore open in his collision with a trawler.
Next home after Dalin was Louis Burton, who told us the hardest thing for him had been the mid-ocean repairs and “constant DIY on the boat.” Burton was dogged by pilot and electronic problems, rigging and halyard issues, loss of the watermaker, and even damage caused by a fire.
These three boats were not particularly unlucky – almost every boat that reached the finish had to overcome major technical problems at some point. But what’s remarkable about many of the repairs is they were not short-term get-you-home lash-ups – they allowed the boat to be pushed in full race mode for tens of thousands of miles. We spoke to the skippers to find out what ocean cruising sailors could learn from the race.
Solve problems before you go
The Vendée skippers’ extraordinary ability to solve technical problems and complete mid-ocean repairs is the outcome of a process that starts early in each campaign. Everyone I spoke to highlighted the extent to which preparation has improved across the fleet over the past few editions, including among the low-budget teams. At the top level, teams are also continuously finding better ways to approach tasks.
Sam Davies has sailed IMOCAs for a decade and a half and seen these changes first-hand. Her team now uses thermal imaging to help identify delamination in structures. This recently available technique creates a complete picture of the structure and therefore may identify problems missed by ultrasound, which can only test at discrete points.
Every new piece of equipment bought for Initiatives Coeur gets a full NDT (non-destructive testing) analysis before being fitted. This establishes a baseline against which any subsequent changes can be measured.
For instance, the boat had a new rig before the Vendée Globe, but even the very best mouldings have some flaws. This is not an issue providing they are within the limits set by structural engineers, but the initial NDT testing means that, when the spars are checked at the end of the race, it’s possible to differentiate between those initial flaws and any new damage.
Despite this level of prep it’s easy for small, but important, items to slip though the net. Davies broke a forestay pin due to fatigue failure. “I can’t believe we didn’t pick up on that,” she told me. “That pin is part of a furler which goes back to the manufacturer to be serviced. It’s a piece that’s holding up the rig, but we’re not X-raying it ourselves.”
One example of preparation that’s standard practice in long-distance racing, but often omitted by cruising yachts preparing for lengthy voyages, is to add Dyneema chafe jackets to halyards to protect against damage at sheaves.
The difference this makes is immense, thanks to the slippery nature of Dyneema, and I’ve personally finished transatlantic races with spinnaker halyards that look almost new after adding them.
Knowing your boat really, really well is key to both reducing the risk of damage and identifying the best repair solutions. Once at sea, checks and inspections are the most vital element in avoiding breakages and equipment failure.
A minimum is a daily check around the boat, inside and out, including examining the rig with binoculars. Any item that’s a cause for concern gets more constant monitoring.
Creative thinking can help in this context. After an exploding running backstay block nearly put an end to her race, Alexia Barrier hoisted a GoPro camera up her mast to check for damage, avoiding the need to climb a potentially compromised rig herself.
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Miranda Merron is an ardent fan of maintaining a scrupulously clean boat, with dry bilges and machinery spaces. To make it easier to check for damage to the carbon structure she painted key areas white, so cracks can be seen easily at an early stage.
She also recommends a stripe of white paint across nuts, washers and a reference mark on the boat. That way you can see at a glance whether or not the nut has moved. But even then she was caught out by the fastenings for the main pilot ram loosening. Fortunately she spotted the issue before it became a serious problem, but subsequently took an Allen key on daily checks to physically confirm the tightness of bolts holding mission critical equipment.
“You need to know your boat inside out,” Merron told me. “Check for new leaks around deck fittings, sponge all the water out every day and investigate suspect noises.”
Post-race, many of the boats move ashore and are extensively dismantled for inspection. Yannick Bestaven’s shore crew estimate that the inspection of the winning Maître CoQ IV will last two and a half months. Few long-distance cruisers adopt such an all-round approach, and it’s all too easy to prioritise enjoying the delights of a new destination above properly checking over the boat after a long passage.
On deck damage
This edition of the race demonstrated how vulnerable pulpits and guardrails are to damage from waves, code sails or asymmetrics, or simply from repeated stresses.
Very heavy seas at Cape Horn, for instance, resulted in Maître CoQ IV losing her entire pulpit – at the finish the lifelines were simply tensioned to padeyes near the forestay. “In my life as a sailor,” Yannick Bestaven said, “that was the biggest storm I have ever seen. Mad seas, such as I have never seen – so big and gusts of 60 knots.”
Merron’s pulpit legs broke as a result of repeated flexing and had to be lashed in place. For this type of repair she recommends using polyester, rather than Dyneema, as its inherent stretch means it keeps tension for longer, whereas it’s next to impossible to keep Dyneema tight unless it’s tensioned though a purchase system or with a Spanish windlass.
Damage to stanchions and lifelines is surprisingly common on cruising yachts, whether as a result of misdemeanours when manoeuvring in tight spaces, or encountering a breaking wave with dodgers or solar panels mounted on the rail.
Given this compromises an important safety feature, it’s worth carrying a couple of spare stanchions and figuring out in advance how to deal with a lost pushpit or pulpit.
It’s also easy to underestimate the damage seawater and dried salt crystals can do to deck hardware. Merron saved the first (slightly brackish) water each time she used watermaker freshwater to rinse salt off deck gear, especially the runner blocks and halyard locks.
The latter were rinsed immediately before hoisting a sail and also lubricated – she suffered no problems with them and they were running like new when I saw the boat after the finish.
Other common problems included chafed lines, especially tack lines, while Pip Hare and Clarisse Cremer had sections of their mainsheet traveller track carry away, requiring re-rigging using snatch blocks on strops.
IMOCA 60s may be minimalist in many respects, but not when it comes to mission critical systems. Redundancy of systems is essential in creating a boat that’s resilient to problems – if one element goes down you need to be able to bring a back-up into service immediately.
Even then, having two pilots didn’t enable Louis Burton to avoid problems in the south and he ended up hand-steering for a time. He later explained: “My boat has a back-up autopilot, but it’s on the same network, so if the network stops working the pilots also stop working. That issue created a lot of damage to sails and the mast that I still had to fix even once the pilot was working properly again.” As a result he came close to retiring.
By contrast Merron had two completely independent networks, one from B&G and the other NKE.
Initiatives Coeur went one stage further, with two pilots and two independent data networks that can be linked together in any combination.
In addition, she has a third low-power stand-alone pilot that can be used in compass-only mode, even if the main battery switches need to be turned off to work on the system.
Is having multiple layers of redundancy in this way relevant to the rest of us? Richard Palmer, whose well travelled JPK 10.10 Jangada took 2nd overall in the 2018 RORC championship and was 2020 Yacht of the Year, is convinced it is.
Jangada is set up with two data networks, two masthead wind sensors and, as she is primarily raced short-handed, two autopilots.
Many cruising yachts would benefit from a second pilot ram interfaced with a stand-alone control unit independent of the boat’s main data network. But make sure the back-up is regularly maintained and tested.
Many skippers reported battery charging issues, including Merron and Ari Huusela who said this was their biggest technical headache and threatened their ability to complete the race. Fortunately it has become increasingly simple to create redundancy in this area: today it’s easy to fit plenty of solar, as well as hydrogenerators or fuel cells, and even wind generators, leaving the main engine as a last-ditch back-up for charging when on passage.
Even so, it’s a worthwhile exercise to work out the minimum daily charge required to run the essential systems – basic lighting, navigation and communications – needed to remain safe on passage. You may be surprised at how little is needed – ideally each different type of charging source will be able to supply this amount. If that’s the case, failure of one or more other systems won’t compromise safety, even if life on board is not as comfortable as you’d choose.
You may be able to create simple redundancy in other ways: one night early in the race Ari Huusela woke to find the boat in a complete black-out with no power to lights, navigation equipment or any other systems.
If sailing alone you reach for a head torch and start troubleshooting, but with a larger crew the situation can quickly become fraught. Cheap stick-on battery powered LED lights positioned at strategic points within the boat can rapidly restore an air of normality, and make it easier to find the source of the problem in an emergency.
A lot of skippers had to undertake structural repairs, including Alex Thomson. Charlie Dalin also had to carry out a repair on his damaged port foil and Pip Hare laminated a hydrogenerator leg together as well as a repair to stop a leak around the rudder stock after she had to replace the port rudder.
Jean Le Cam stopped to repair hull delamination twice, including using carbon cut from a water ballast tank for additional reinforcement, but didn’t have enough resin to complete the repair as he would have liked.
Fortunately instances of delamination at sea on cruising boats appear to be vanishingly rare, but hull
damage following collisions in harbours, marinas and crowded anchorages is a risk.
Basic lamination skills are quick and easy to learn and could save a long wait for a boatbuilder. Your repair doesn’t have to look pretty – it just has to be strong and watertight. A full repair, including cosmetic refinishing, can then be scheduled for a convenient later date.
However, if you are preparing a spares kit for a long time it’s important to remember these products all have shelf lives of typically 2-3 years.
Manuel Cousin had to do two lots of laminating work. The first was on December 11, when he found serious structural cracks in one of Groupe Setin’s rudders. His boat has kick-up rudders that are relatively easier to remove and replace than some IMOCA 60s (such as Pip Hare’s Medallia), but even so he first sailed north into an anticyclone to reach a more stable sea state before attempting it.
It’s an important lesson to remember when cruising – it’s easy to be so preoccupied with reaching a destination that we forget it is possible to find relative shelter on the ocean.
One of the most impressive repairs of the entire race was Kojiro Shiraishi’s rebuilt mainsail. When a gybe following pilot failure on day six left large sections of the sail near the head in tatters it seemed as if this would put an end to his race, yet a seven-day repair effort paid off, and his fixed mainsail held until the end of the race.
The days when a sewing machine was needed for on-board repairs are long gone, although in some
cases a few stitches can help anchor the corners of a patch. Today’s best adhesives, such as Dr Sails, are superb and gain 80% of full strength after only 20 minutes drying time, but are also expensive and not universally available.
In Shiraishi’s case he didn’t have enough hi-tech adhesive for the extensive repairs he faced. To make matters worse, he also didn’t have anywhere near enough spare sailcloth. Yet he proved it’s possible to glue serious damage to sails using only PU adhesives such as Sikaflex, and although it must have been a painful decision to slice the bottom off his nearly new mainsail below the first reef, this gave him ample material to work with.
The fix involved gluing patches on both sides, extending 40cm or more each side of the tear, then reinforcing key areas using carbon plate glued and bolted through the sail.
One downside of using a PU adhesive, rather than an epoxy-based one like Dr Sails, is it takes longer to cure, especially at lower temperatures. Damp and salt also proved problematic for other skippers’ sail repairs, even when the area had been cleaned as carefully as possible.
Although the skippers are alone at sea, a Vendée Globe campaign is not a single-handed effort. The sole area in which shore teams are allowed to assist skippers during the race is providing technical advice for repairs.
Clearly it would be useful to have a similar kind of back-up when cruising. The good news for many owners is that’s not as far away as they may imagine. Many builders of quality yachts, for instance, retain comprehensive records for every boat they build and can offer a remote technical service, even for older craft.
Equally, if you’re having a boat refitted, the yard carrying out the work would be an obvious choice for continued support, especially if this can be planned at the outset.
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