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Trans-At fleet gets slammed 1st week

Some changes may be made to the racing rules as a result of boat damage and injuries

Some changes may be made to the racing rules as a result of boat damage and injuries

Raw November weather clobbered the Transat Jacques Vabre trimaran fleet, KO’ing six of the 10 doubled-handed 60-footers and raising concern again about their suitability for short-handed ocean racing.

Four of the light, powerful, open-design raceboats fell out of the race in steep seas as a cold front raked the fleet two days after the Nov. 6 start off Le Havre, France. (The two-week race finishes in Salvador, Brazil.) Orange Project’s crossbeam snapped, causing its capsize, and Foncia succumbed to a one-two punch of wind and waves. “The wind was down to 20 to 25 knots by then,” said race spokeswoman Mary Ambler in a telephone interview. “But there was a sudden 45-knot gust, and a big wave slammed into them and flipped them over.”

A French Navy helicopter crew rescued co-skippers Damian Foxall and Armel Le Cleac’h on Foncia and Swiss brothers Steve and Yvan Ravussin on Orange Project. Foxall injured a shoulder in the capsize, which broke the boom in two and snapped the mast into several pieces, according to race Web site

The trimaran Brossard developed a 1-1/4-inch-wide crack in its central hull, near the mast step, and was towed back to the British island of Guernsey. “The whole boat was at risk,” said co-skipper Yvan Bourgnon in a report to race headquarters.

And Sobedo lost its mast. Co-skipper Thomas Coville said seas were punishing. “A huge wave suddenly slammed violently into the boat, and the port float opened up in two right in the middle,” he reported.

Ambler says a quick wind shift from 35 to 45 knots southwest to 25 to 30 knots northwest on the back side of the front created a lethal sea state of big, steep waves. As the front passed, the wind shift and breaking 20-foot waves tore up the 35-boat fleet.

Two days later Groupama-2, skippered by French sailors Franck Cammas and Franck Proffit, capsized in a sudden squall 40 miles northeast of La Palma in the Canary Islands. They had just put into Madeira for five hours to repair their rudder and were back in the race, sailing downwind in 30 knots when the rudder on the central pod detached and the boat pitchpoled. Proffit was at the helm and was thrown violently forward, injuring his ribs. A helicopter from the Canary Islands medevaced him to the islands for treatment.

Four days later in the Doldrums, Giovanni Soldini and Vittorio Malingri’s TIM Progetto Italia capsized 400 miles southwest of Dakar, Senegal. Race organizers reported that the boat was sailing on autopilot at modest speed when the electronics failed. The trimaran luffed, and Soldini, who was trimming the sails, couldn’t get back to the helm quickly enough to prevent the boat from slowly lifting and capsizing.

The 60-foot trimarans weren’t the only class that took a drubbing in the race. Eleven of the 35 boats that started retired, many of them beat up in the first few days in the cold front. For many, the race was reminiscent of the 2002 Route du Rhum, in which just three of 18 multihulls finished after repeated buffetings in severe November weather. A lot of soul-searching ensued about whether the boats in the Open 60 multihull class were built strongly enough to stand up to the rigors of offshore distance racing. “There was a lot of introspection,” says Pete Melvin of Morrelli and Melvin, the Huntington Beach, Calif., firm that designed Steve Fawcett’s 125-foot catamaran PlayStation. “The sailors and designers got together in Europe to make changes to the rules to try to prevent this from happening again.”

Predictably, there was little enthusiasm for a lot of changes in a rule that is supposed to be open enough to encourage risk-taking, innovation and cutting-edge design. Melvin says one change they did agree to was a ban on high-modulus carbon fiber and Nomex, which while light, strong and stiff is also brittle. That combination seemed to be the culprit in many of the catastrophic failures that occurred in ’02 when big waves pounded the trimarans, especially from abeam.

Most Open 60 trimarans now are built of heavier but less brittle foam-core standard-modulus carbon fiber. “I think the structural reliability has improved,” Melvin says. “The structural damage [in the Jacques Vabre] isn’t as bad as the last time, when we had similar conditions.”

The open-class trimarans, however, have powered up significantly in the last four years. They carry more sail, and designers are “taking every ounce of weight they can from the hull and rig and putting it in the keel,” Melvin says. “They are pushing the engineering to the edge.”

He says a minimum weight limit could take them back from that edge. “It’s a development class, meant to push the edge of the technology,” Melvin says. “No one wants to see the boats dumbed down, but it might be time to do something like that.”

That’s not the class’s only problem though; Melvin thinks it also suffers from a split personality. Originally designed as short-handed offshore racers, the early 60-foot trimarans had controls centralized in a small center cockpit in the center hull for ease of handling.

“As more sponsors came in, they wanted more return on their investment,” he says. “They wanted more inshore racing.” This required larger crews — six to eight people — and boats were redesigned with controls spread out in much larger aft cockpits so larger crews could work the boat efficiently.

“I often wonder if the shorted-handed crews can handle these boats as well as they used to,” he says. “The boats are more powerful and less easy to handle than they used to be.”

Melvin says it may be time for the class to clarify what these racers are designed for: fully crewed inshore sprints or short-handed races across oceans. “I think they’re trying to do too much with the boats,” he says.

Ambler says racers, designers and sponsors also likely will discuss changing the race’s dates, or possibly its start and finish locations. Le Havre is on the English Channel, which can whip up into a nasty brew in winter.

“We’ll see,” says Ambler. “I think we’ll see a lot of things change before the next race.” They have until 2007 to make those changes.

Class winners

Open 60 multihulls: Banque Populaire — Pascal Bidégorry and Lionel Lemonchois, 14 days, 1 hour, 46 minutes, 29 seconds. Open 60 monohulls: Virbac-

Paprec — Jean-Pierre Dick and Loïck Peyron, 13:9:19:2. Open 50 multihulls: Crêpes Whaou! — Franck-Yves Escoffier and Kevin Escoffier, 13:6:13:59. Open 50 monohulls: Gryphon Solo — J. Harris and J. Hall, 19:9:5:45.