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Maxi racer capsize prompts lawsuit

Skandia owner sues the maker of his yacht’s hydraulic keel rams, which failed in a rough race

Skandia owner sues the maker of his yacht’s hydraulic keel rams, which failed in a rough race

Grant Wharington is suing the manufacturer of his maxiyacht Skandia’s hydraulic keel rams, which snapped during the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race in December, resulting in the loss of the 98-footer’s canting keel.

Skandia capsized in a gale Dec. 27 about 60 miles northeast of Tasmania after the keel fell off. Australian Wharington, Skandia’s owner and skipper, says he blames the ram manufacturer for the keel failure, not the technology or Skandia’s chief designer, Don Jones. Australian Jones also designed Wharington’s new Volvo 70, Premier Challenge, and its canting keel. The 70-footer is scheduled to launch in June and start Nov. 12 in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.

“We would like to take this opportunity to stress that we have 110 percent confidence in our chief designer, Don Jones — in what he has done with Skandia and what he continues to do with our latest VO70 project,” says Wharington in a press release. “This action should send a strong message to all that Don is in no way implicated in any of this, and he should continue to enjoy his well-earned reputation as one of the most innovative and safest yacht designers of our time.”

In an e-mail to Soundings, Wharington, a 40-year-old Melbourne developer, says Skandia’s keel failure doesn’t introduce any uncertainty in his mind about the canting keel on Premier Challenge, or about the new Volvo 70 rule that for the first time allows canting keels on Volvo racers. Earlier Volvo 60s used water-ballast technology to keep them from heeling.

“The situation with the Skandia supermaxi was due to a failure of the cylinders, not the design,” Wharington says. He says he believes the canting keel technology is sound and will prove an essential design feature for winning the 2005-’06 Volvo Ocean Race.

Wharington announced Jan. 13 that he had filed suit in Supreme Court of Victoria seeking “unspecified damages” against the ram manufacturer. The Australian press identified the company as Major Engineering and said Wharington claimed his $4 million maxiyacht suffered “millions of dollars” in damage as a result of the capsize.

Russell Bowles, president of Farr Yacht Design of Annapolis, Md., which is building three VO70s, says his designers were “gravely concerned” at the initial report of Skandia’s keel failure because Jones would have been using pretty much the same load and stress parameters in designing Skandia’s keel that Farr had used.

“From information published by Grant’s team it is apparent that the initial problem was a hydraulic ram failure,” Bowles wrote in an e-mail to Soundings. “To some degree this revelation has eased some of our fears in that the problem is identifiable and solvable.”

However, he says they will be looking closely at the Volvo 70s when they launch and will attend sea trials “with strong interest.”

Bowles says single-handers pioneered the development of canting keels when they began racing around the world with them in the mid-1990s. In this year’s Vendee Globe, keel failure has been a problem. Keels on two boats fell off, the keel on another cracked, and the forward pivot on a fourth keel broke, forcing all four boats to retire.

Bowles points out that “fully crewed larger ocean racers [like Skandia] give the keels and the general boat structures a bit more vigorous workout than a single-handed Open 60, so design of the canting keels has to recognize this and [strengthen them] accordingly.”

Thirty-six hours into the 628-mile Sydney Hobart, Skandia launched off a rogue wave. The two rams, which control the canting keel, are on one side of the hull. They snapped and bent on landing and jammed the keel to one side. The keel later came loose and started tearing the hull apart, forcing the 16 crewmembers to jump into two life rafts and await rescue. The keel later snapped off, and Skandia capsized. A salvage crew towed the boat into port. Wharington says Skandia’s keel is gone, its mast is broken into four pieces, the sails are in shreds, the interior is gutted, and the hull is holed. He says he plans to rebuild the ultramodern 98-footer but not until after the Volvo race.

The canting, or swing, keel of a VO70 can swing a maximum of 40 degrees to both sides. Cranked to the weather side, the keel generates righting moment and counteracts heel. A canting keel usually is faster than the alternative — a fixed keel with water ballast pumped from one side of the hull to the other — because it doesn’t increase displacement. Swing keels often are used in tandem with retractable fins fore or aft that reduce leeway. Most of them have both power and manual cranks.

Canting keels have a controversial history. The 1996 Vendee Globe revealed some deficiencies in the design of both the canting bulb keels and bulb keels with water ballast. Four yachts capsized in the ’96 Vendee, and one skipper died. The technology has evolved to the point that in 2002 the MaxZ96 Class of turbo-sleds voted to adopt canting keels. At the 2004 Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup at Porto Cervo, Italy, all three of the top finishers, including winner Roy Disney’s Pyewacket, raced with canting keels. Alfa Romeo, one of the most successful maxis ever, finished sixth at Port Cervo, proof that its water-ballast design is outdated now.

Bowles believes the new design rule allowing canting keels on VO70s “will advance the state of the art in leaps and bounds because it is the first rule at this size that includes sensible limits of cant angle, displacement, bulb weights and beam, while at the same time [encouraging] designers to produce lightweight structures and canting equipment.”

In the 2004 Sydney Hobart one other maxi — the 98-foot Konica Minolta — retired with keel damage. A more conservative design than Skandia, Konica carries a fixed keel and water ballast. At 14 tons, Skandia’s canting keel is one of the largest ever designed for a yacht.