Moments of Impact

In the Vendee Globe, 21,638 miles of ocean sailing presents hidden dangers for the sailors and their boats.

collision
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Thomas Ruyant likely hit a shipping container, causing massive hull damage and forcing to retire.Thomas Ruyant

Seven of 29 starting Vendee Globe skippers reported collisions with unidentified floating objects, forcing six skippers to retire or lose valuable time and performance by conducting repairs on the fly. The threat of collision is compounded by the ever-increasing amount of debris in the ocean and the remarkable speeds at which competitors are sailing.

A 2014 survey by the World Shipping Council found that for each of the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, “approximately 733 containers were lost at sea.” When “catastrophic losses” are added to the tally — during violent storms, for instance — the average number of containers jumps to “approximately 2,683” in the same period. That rounds out to more than 233 containers falling overboard each month.

Yet there are hazards beyond containers: whales and large fish, flotsam, ocean debris, trash of varying sizes, even weather buoys. For oceangoing racers today, there is a sense of when, not if, a UFO strike will happen. Here’s how six Vendee Skippers describe their moment of impact.

Alex Thompson, 11.16.16; Location: South Atlantic; Damage: Sheared foil; continued racing

“I was averaging 24 knots when I heard an almighty bang, and the boat stopped and turned to starboard 20 degrees. I went on deck, eased the main sheet, and realized I must have hit something. I eased the boat downwind and went to take a look. The starboard foil had been damaged and there were some scrapes on the starboard side of the boat.... I didn’t see anything in the water, but it felt like the boat had wrapped itself around something and it had caused some pretty significant damage. I was instructed to carry out an internal inspection of the boat, and there didn’t not appear to be any structural damage to the hull that I could see.”

Thomas Ruyant, 12.19.16; Location: Tasman Sea; Damage: Cracked hull; Retired

“The shock was exceptionally violent. It gives me the shivers just thinking about it. I was at 17 or 18 knots and I came to a sudden standstill, hitting what was probably a container, seeing the damage it has done to the hull. The whole of the forward section exploded and folded up. Luckily, the boat was not dismasted. It was really very violent. I was sleeping on my beanbag and, fortunately, I had my head down in that, as I ended up hitting the mast bulkhead. I found things that were stowed in the stern right up against the forward bulkhead, thrown 10 meters forward. I wasn’t not far from the coast, and I think I must’ve been close to a shipping lane…. There were probably several containers in the water. I think that was what I hit, given the violence of the crash.”

Romain Attanasio
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While not race-ending damage, a UFO collision caused serious rudder damage to Romain Attanasio.Romain Attanasio

Sebastien Josse, 12.5.16; Location: Southern Ocean; Damage: Broken foil; Retired

“While surfing along, the boat reached 30 knots before slowing right down to 10 knots as she dug in. It lasted for only a few seconds. When the boat got going again, I felt that something wasn’t right, and I soon saw that there was a problem with the port foil. I opened the cover to the foil housing, and I could see there had been damage. The attachment to the top of the foil, which is made of carbon and designed for such strains, had broken. I had to act quickly because the foil was being held in place by just two screws, and if it came out of its mounting, the consequences would be much more serious — it could damage the whole housing by slipping sideways, which would lead to an ingress of water. I quickly gybed to secure the foil and stop that from happening, but unfortunately the timing wasn’t good in terms of the weather.”

Vincent Riou, 11.20.16; Location: South Altlantic; Damage: Broken keel box; Retired

“On Sunday night, something hit the bulb. The keel started to vibrate. It then started moving from side to side…. I didn’t think much about it. The keel often hits things in ocean races, and this bang wasn’t that big. Later that night, the noise grew louder, until I started hearing metallic sounds as well as noises from the carbon. I was able to open the keel housing and feel around inside. I could feel that the keel was moving. Around the front bearings, the hole was bigger than the axis of the keel, confirming my fears about damage to the bearings. I didn’t know what to think. This damage happened at almost the same point as the damage four years ago. When I passed Salvador a few days prior, I had spent the night thinking about that. I told myself that I had got rid of my demons. And then, just as four years ago, 14 days after the start, we [had a collision] with irreparable damage done.”

Morgan Lagravière 11.24.16; Location: Cape of Good Hope; Damage: Sheared rudder; Retired

“I had between 20 and 25 knots of wind, and the boat was impossible to control. I broached four or five times. While taking a nap toward midday, I felt the boat going over. When I went outside, I could see that the leeward rudder had come out of its attachment and two-thirds of it was missing. I think it was the result of hitting an unidentified floating object. Unfortunately, I didn’t have what was required to be able to repair such damage, and so it was over for me.”

Kito de Pavant 12.6.16; Location: Cape of Good Hope; Damage: Broken keel; Retired

“I hit something hard with the keel. It was a violent shock, and the boat came to a standstill. The rear bearings of the keel were ripped off, and the keel was hanging under the boat kept in place simply by the keel ram, which is in the process of cutting through the hull…. The keel housing had been destroyed and there was a huge ingress of water there, but for the moment, it was limited to the engine compartment. I had 40 knots of wind and 5- to 6-meter-high waves. The boat stopped. I brought down the mainsail so that she was heeling less. The situation was stabilized for the moment. I had my survival kit alongside me. Someone was going to have to come and get me. I tried to contact the Marion Dufresne to ask them to come.”