Reliable horses for the courses

Given the harsh marine environment, balancing the need for strength against the bulimic tendencies of go-fast racing gear has never been easy. As this year’s fully crewed Volvo Ocean and the solo Vende Globe races have made clear, the old clich about the sea exploiting weaknesses is most relevant when you start racing high-strung thoroughbreds all the way around the world.

While the two races are categorically different, they are both contested in ultra-light speed machines sporting carbon-fiber everything, canting keels, daggerboards, water ballasting, and sail inventories that cost more than some nations’ GDP. But with this technology comes the potential for disaster. Last November 30 boats gathered in Les Sables d’Olonne, France, for the start of the Vende Globe. By early February only 11 remained. Three lost their rigs, two lost their ballast bulbs, and several destroyed their rudders, while others suffered other calamities.

The Volvo Ocean Race has also seen serious carnage. True, the Volvo boats are fully crewed, meaning that some blokes can repair things while the rest of the lads race (or at least keep the boat pointed in a safe direction), but extra hands translate to extra-aggressive sailing. Multiple boats have suffered serious structural damage including broken stringers, cracked hulls, broken bows, snapped booms, busted rigging, and faulty keel rams.

Such destruction begs the question: Are these boats sturdy enough? Some suggest these races might be better off if they were contested in sturdy (read: heavy and conservative) 60-foot offshore racer/cruisers—the sort of boats that can take a proper Southern Ocean pounding, but can’t sail even half as fast as their purebred counterparts.

The Volvo Ocean Race bills itself as “Life at the Extreme,” and the Vendee Globe’s unofficial subtitle dubs it “the Mount Everest of sailing.” Would such grand phrases apply if these races were sailed in stronger boats? Certainly there would be less drama. And what about sponsorships? Could teams secure funding if race organizers took the conservative approach? Conversely, given the broken global economy, can sponsors still afford to build and maintain fragile, expensive boats?

While the coin could land on either side of this debate, there’s no question that armchair pundits (myself included) would yawn at the prospect of 14-knot speed runs compared to the 40+ knots that a Volvo 70 is capable of. As for the sailors, Jerry Kirby, Puma’s bowman, summed it up well while we were sailing with boatspeeds tickling the mid-20’s: “If you think this is cool, you should be here when this thing really lights up!”

For pundits like myself and speed freaks like Kirby, the debate stops there. Corporate balance sheets will dictate the future of sponsorship. As for the sea, well, there’s no question that it will continue to seek out—and destroy—weak links in otherwise strong chains.

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