This Week in the Vendee Globe

A nice piece from The New York Times on the Vendee Globe Race…

Bernard Moitessier of France surprised the sailing world by peeling away from the first solo, nonstop, around-the-world race when he was on the cusp of finishing in 1969. He said in his reports to passing ships that he had found enlightenment on the high seas. He continued to go two-thirds of the way around the globe before landing in the South Pacific because he could.

This week, in the same storm-tossed Southern Ocean that Moitessier attacked twice, the British sailor Alex Thomson is struggling to conserve diesel fuel while competing in the Vendée Globe, the offspring of that first race in 1969, then called the Golden Globe Race.

Diesel is the lifeblood of Thomson’s Imoca 60 racing yacht. All the electrical systems on the boat are run off a battery, which is charged by the diesel engine on board once or twice a day. Without energy produced by the boat’s diesel engine and two hydro generators, the autopilot and essential navigation systems would be lost. After losing one of the hydro generators that trail from the back of the boat in November, he is at risk of running out of fuel and abandoning the race.

Now at the halfway point in the race, Thomson is not alone. His rival Bernard Stamm was searching for shelter in New Zealand’s Auckland Islands to repair his hydro generators as of Monday.

Stamm, who was anchored in Sandy Bay, south of Enderby Island, in the northeast of the Auckland Islands archipelago, was hoping to leave by Tuesday after making repairs to his boat.

Thomson may be pining for the days of Moitessier, when slower, simpler boats were steered by a wind vane, but there is only one boat today that can match Moitessier’s bold move by continuing on, seemingly indefinitely: Acciona 100% EcoPowered. It took three years of intense trial and error, but Javier Sanso’s (pictured above) eco-powered, 60-foot racing yacht in the Vendée Globe has been fully charged since the start of the race in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, in November. And he is poised to make gains on the eight skippers in the front pack based on that fact alone.

“People have a decent amount of diesel,” Sanso said in a satellite phone interview last week while entering the Southern Ocean. “I’m hoping they don’t have an energy problem, but I believe eco-power is a really good advantage.”

Sanso’s boat has an electric engine, the first in the history of the race, and an array of solar panels built into a large part of the boat’s deck. Two wind and two hydro generators are additional power sources, and a fuel cell can charge the 15 lithium ion batteries twice over if needed, and run the engine.

Hydro generators for racing sailboats became popular after the 2008 race when Yannick Bestaven, the only competitor using hydropower, fine-tuned the design of the Watt and Sea hydro generator that is now seen on every boat in the Vendée Globe.

“For the first time, they have a positive balance between what they produce and what they use,” said Denis Horeau, the race manager, attributing it to the proliferation of hydro generators in the race.

Horeau does not agree with Sanso, however, that the Acciona project, sponsored by a company focused on renewable energy sources, has a performance benefit.

“He is courageous,” said Horeau, “and he is trying many new things. But he’s carrying more weight, and there were so many tests in order to have everything working properly. He does not have the preparation of himself and the boat as the other skippers have.”

Pio Cabanillas of Acciona agrees that there were some performance concessions with the project but that Sanso’s completion of the race could show the way forward for the fleet.

“Other boats are full of diesel at the beginning of the race,” Cabanillas said in a phone interview from the company’s headquarters in Spain. “Near the end, they are lighter, but if they get into trouble, what then?”

Cabanillas said the Imova 60 class rules for the boats in the race used to require a diesel engine that could help power the boat in an emergency, to seek shelter or assist a stricken competitor. The rules were changed for Sanso’s boat, and now Cabanillas said the race organizers and Imoca were looking to the Acciona as a standard for the future.

“There is no new technology in this boat,” Cabanillas said. “Hydro, wind, solar, it’s all available. However, it has never been put in one boat in the most difficult race and test of navigation.”

The redundancy of parts and the diversity of power in Sanso’s systems are well suited for a lap around the world, said the boat’s project manager, Pedro Feliu.

“He will lean more on different systems as he goes,” Feliu said. “The race starts in France in the winter; that impacts the solar panel. He has less sun then when he started, but down there it’s summer and the degrees of the sun’s impact are greater. He has speed for hydro generators. There will be less wind in the tropics but more sun.”

Feliu said energy freedom aboard Acciona comes at a cost.

“Of course we’re more expensive to start,” he said. “It depends on how long you go. We never stop at a gas station.”

Sanso’s only spares are fuses, 30 extra in total, and he has yet to use one. His biggest concern is keeping the batteries dry.

“Of course running out of fuel has been an issue, but running out of fuel and food is all part of the Vendée Globe,” said Horeau, referring to all the elements of racing a boat solo around the globe, including energy, food, water and sails.

If Sanso completes the race, he will be the first to avoid using fossil fuels. If his competitors continue to have energy problems, he may have a shot at a podium finish.

When asked if he would enjoy taking advantage of the freedom that his eco-powered boat had given him and continue sailing after the finish as Moitessier did, Sanso laughed.

“My wife would kill me,” Sanso said. “It’s a complicated choice. You can’t even stand up in the boat with all the stuff inside, and the boat is always heeling 20 degrees. Only benefit is that it’s dry.”

Courtesy of www.nytimes.com

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