Technological Advancements Accelerate Vendée Globe’s Racing Sailboats

Sailboats for racing are now lighter and faster thanks to modern upgrades.

Photo courtesy of IMOCA.

(Photo courtesy of IMOCA.)

The Vendée Globe is considered one of the most prestigious and grueling sailing races in the world. Dubbed the “Everest of the seas,” only 89 of 167 contenders over eight series have managed to successfully complete the race. In a race that spans months, sailors must confront the freezing cold, as well as gigantic waves, as they traverse the seas. 2017’s winner, Armel LeCleac’h, currently holds the fastest record, managing to cross the finish line in only 74 days. This year, the 9th Vendée Globe will be launching from Les Sables d’Olonne on November 8 and will see racers sailing through the Atlantic, the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and back through the Atlantic again. This means a mid-autumn start from Les Sables d’Olonne, an austral summer at the heart of the Southern seas, and a winter arrival back to Vendée.

To meet the challenge, solo racers design their racing boats to withstand harsh climates and rough seas. Vendée has some strict requirements when it comes to the competition’s boats. All boats measure approximately 60 feet and can go beyond 30 knots even in downwind conditions. The International Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA) gauge all the boats involved in the competition. Prior to the eighth edition, IMOCA revamped this gauge to include the following: a standardized keel, a choice between two masts (conventional or wing-mast), and limited appendices and ballasts. In addition to this, more foils should be added to prevent drag. They’re expecting the 2020 contenders to be equipped with more foils in the upcoming race.

Hydrofoils are typically positioned on either side of the hull and serve to reduce drag and lift the boat at rapid speeds. The latest IMOCA boats are now capable of reducing circumnavigation by 40 days thanks to these modern upgrades.

French sailor Loïck Peyron shared the high-tech construction of a 60-foot monohull IMOCA boat built specifically for the race. Most racing boats today are also manufactured similarly to how airplanes are produced. “We use the same terms, the same mathematical formulas and the same prediction and simulation tools as those used in aircraft,” shared Peyron. Generally speaking, “the speeds of the boats have been multiplied by four in forty years.”

Peyron shared how technological advancements have allowed sailors to leave behind the traditional wooden boats and cotton sails. These new boats now typically use carbon fiber materials, making them lighter and faster. Metals have been replaced with synthetic fibers that have the same strength of steel and “the weight of a match.”

This has allowed the design and reliability of sailboats to accelerate faster in less than 50 years. “We are surely the only mechanical sport in which the difference is the most significant between the common way of sailing a normal boat and the amazing way of piloting a racing boat.”

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